Culture · Industrial Revolution · Technology

Little Things Mean a Lot

Here’s how two specific products of the Industrial Revolution affected the way we live our lives and how we feel about what we do.

When electricity was brought into the home it enabled the darkness to be dispelled with the flick of a switch. Along with the invention of the light bulb, came the introduction of electric lamps. Not only did the replacement of the smelly messy whale oil with a light bulb give us more time to do what we wanted to do, it meant that the lamps now moved to the wall where they could attach to the outlets. This meant that gradually the center table lost its usefulness as a place where the family gathered around a single light source to listen to one person (usually the father) read and where they talked to each other and interacted face to face.

Researchers examining Civil War diaries are struck by the literary quality of the letters sent home by uneducated young men. The reason, of course, is that they absorbed the rules of writing by hearing well-constructed sentences read aloud night after night.

Now with the lamps beside a chair near the outlet, family members could privately pursue their own interests.

The light bulb made electric lamps possible

Then there was running water and city sewer systems, which brought the toilet inside the house. Heretofore going to the toilet was hardly a secret because the outhouse was always located as far from the house as possible. Women could be clearly seen making their way to the outhouse. (Imagine poor women having to deal with a hoop skirt and ankle length skirts using a 3-holer. Also they no doubt suffered some pretty uncomfortable moments trying to “hold it” at a party. Medical literature of the time indicates they even suffered medical consequences at times because they delayed having bowel movements for days.)

With the toilet inside, toilets could be strategically located behind several closed doors, and going to the toilet became more of a private event. (Women actually crocheted toilet lid covers to block the noise of someone putting the seat down.) This attitude persists to this day as architects design homes with the bathroom behind several closed doors and as far as possible from the public rooms where one entertains guests.

Culture · Technology

You’re Fired! Walmart Robots Are Out of a Job

Walmart's robot

Who knew? It seems that the roving robots Walmart has been hiring for the last five years have not been more efficient than the flesh and blood humans they replaced!

When I wrote here about robots two years ago (Why Robots Scare Me), I did not doubt that they would be more efficient. Certainly they have proven to be more efficient than human workers in many areas of factory production.
But that is obviously not always the case, as Walmart has discovered. They thought the robots they hired to replace human workers in 1,000 of their 4,700 stores would reduce labor costs by keeping track of inventory available on the shelves, as well as inventory available for online ordering—which had increased as a result of COVID-19.

But as a former neighbor of mine (an ex-US Army captain) was fond of saying, “‘Assume’ makes an ass of you and me.” As it turns out it is more cost-effective to rely on human workers even though more of them may need to be hired.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Walmart CEO John Furner also wondered if customers might not react negatively to encountering the six-foot-tall machines patrolling the aisles, getting in their way. Well, I guess so!  It’s bad enough having to dodge the automated floor cleaners (which they do not intend to get rid of). My advice to Walmart is to keep the robots in the back room—counting cash, stocking shelves there, whatever else they’re capable of doing. I’d much rather encounter a human worker, who, if politely asked, would gladly hand me that can of taco sauce off the high top shelf.  A human interaction which is, as they say, beyond price.

paintings · Poetry · Technology

Another Take on Conversation

About the same time as I was writing my last post on the importance of conversation, Herb was working on a post of the same subject for his blog. We didn’t plan it that way. That sort of thing happens when you’ve been married a long time. Here, from his blog,


Herb Knapp

Birds, bees, termites, ants, and molds
taken singly are brainless things,
but when they come together with their kind,
they act as if directed by a mind.
We, however, lose our minds in crowds,
grow drunkenly ambitious, start to build
stairways to the stars, or try to kill
our neighbors, pillage stores, set fire to cars.
Solitude is no solution though.
A mountain man’s a crowd of one,
who follows his uncontradicted will, 
as mindless as an ant without a hill.
Our minds are fragile, easily destroyed
by noise or silence, griefs or celebrations.
For minds to flourish, they must be employed
regularly in rambling conversations.

Below iis a conversation between men called “The Long Story” by William Sidney Mount.

And here is a painting of a conversation between two women called “Conversation” by the twentieth century painter Milton Avery.

Thomas Traherne: “The world is best enjoyed and most immediately while we converse blessed and wisely with men.”

Jonathan Edwards: “The being of society, as such, is conversation.”

Michael Oakeshott: “Learning to be human is learning to participate in the conversation of mankind.” 


Three Smart Phones and the Sounds of Silence


First published on May 17, 2016. Here it is again–slightly edited.

Last Tuesday morning a couple walked into the restaurant where Herb and I were having coffee. They sat down at a nearby table; the waitress took their order, the man pulled out his cell phone and began texting—maybe emailing. For the next five minutes, she sat silent as stone, staring into the middle distance.

After a few more minutes, a second phone in his pocket rang. He took it out, spoke briefly to the caller and then returned to the  business of the first phone.

Finally, she took her phone from her bag and started scrolling. I kept my eye on them, fascinated by a real-life example of what I have been reading about in a compelling and disturbing book, Reclaiming Conversation: the Importance of Talk in the Digital Age by Sherry Turkel.

After twenty minutes, we finished our coffee and left. Not a word had been exchanged between them. I don’t know how two people who are so uninterested in each other could maintain a relationship much less a marriage for long. As someone who has remained happily married ( for a long, looong time—65 years and counting), I am here to tell you this is not the way you do it.


Where Have All the Horses Gone?

The building on 89th Street, New York City, that once housed the Claremont Stables

When we lived in Manhattan we were just two blocks from the Claremont Stables.  In 2007 the stables closed its doors—to horses, that is. Today the yellow brick building with its large rounded entrances houses a private school.

At the time it closed, the Claremont was the oldest continuing operating stable in New York City. It was built in 1892 as a livery stable where wealthy folks could board their horse and store their carriage between outings. Other not-so-wealthy folks could rent a horse and carriage by the hour. In 1928, because of its proximity to the bridle path in Central Park and the fact that the introduction of the automobile had meant the reduction in the need for horses, the Claremont Stables became the Claremont Riding Academy where you could rent a horse for a ride in Central Park for $55 an hour or board your own horse if you happened to own one. Continue reading “Where Have All the Horses Gone?”