I heart my laptop, for a brief shining moment

Today a marketing research video showed a respondent talking about her laptop. Her affection was so palpable that, as the analysis pointed out, it looked like she was ready to embrace it.

And for good reason. It truly is not just a unit for computing. It’s the place where she keep so much that is important by any fair measure — probably all the pictures of who she loves and where she’s been, all the music she listens to, all the phone numbers she calls. It’s got all the letters she’s written, and most of the answers. It’s where she stores her ideas, if she has any. It projects her movies. It’s got the basic tools she uses for running her life. It’s liable to be full of jokes, things to see and tasks to do.

What’s amazing isn’t that the computer matters to her, it’s that she sees it at all. This is a brief historic moment when the technology is good enough to bring all that stuff together, but new enough that anyone notices. In another few years the laptop — or the device that replaces it — will just be a machine, just so much junk, the way the desktop PC or the Walkman are just things we use, amazing as they were in their time.

The firm that did the research really should preserve the clip for a future museum of technical progress. It’s always striking to see how the things that are utterly normal to us today meant something totally different in another context.

I should admit that I sometimes get a flash of that same feeling about my laptop, as wheezy a solution as it is for holding much of what I treasure. While it still matters, I suppose I should get myself one that I too can treasure, if only for a few moments before it fades into the routines of just so much stuff.

Charming eyesores: The Georgian Burglar Alarms of Dublin’s Doors

Yes, the Georgian doorways are charming, especially given that the Georgian facades are otherwise remarkably spare. These buildings could be 20th Century low-rent apartment blocks if not for the massive chimneys and lovely doors. That makes the prominent addition of burglar alarms even more striking, with the alarm boxes typically placed immediately adjacent to the door.
The Georgian Burglar Alarms of Dublin's Doors

Field Museum Shrunken Heads

It was behind-the-scenes night at the Field Museum in Chicago and the anthropology department had staff members displaying some of its wares. Here was my chance to ask the question that had been bothering me for years: What had happened to the shrunken heads? Like the baloney people and fetuses at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Ivan Albright paintings at the Art Institute, the Field Museum’s shrunken heads were a crucual rite of passage for generations of Chicago kids.

A staffer answered that they were in storage — at least they hadn’t been thrown out. The museum was no longer a place for curios, he said.

Aspiring to a more scientific mission is admirable and even appropriate. But that shouldn’t require denying the museum’s own historical legacy. Displaying curios is part of its history, and the highpoints of that history should remain accessible. And besides, between Bushman the stuffed gorilla still displayed in the basement and Sue the dinosaur, the museum’s multimillion-dollar T-Rex, there seems to be a continuing commitment to at least some curios.

Meanwhile, here’s the not entirely satisfactory explanation from the Field’s own Web site:

Why were the shrunken heads from South America taken off display?
“The shrunken heads from the Shuara (Jivaro) culture of lowland Ecuador were taken off display when the South America Hall was recently converted into the new Museum store. However, the exhibit in which the heads were showcased was outdated and needed to be revised. Today, we now know that headhunting was a part of the complex religious belief system of the Shuara, who placed a strong emphasis on creating a rich mythology and used shamanistic practices to unify the real and supernatural worlds. From ethnographical research conducted by anthropologist Michael Harner, we also know that the Shuara shrank heads not only of enemies caught in battle, but also of revered members of their community as a way to incorporate their spirits into those of the living.”

Alaka Wali
Associate Curator, Anthropology

RIP Don Knotts, comic genius

Don Knotts in The Love God?Don Knott’s death Friday at 81 is a great loss, even though Knotts’ real talent will hardly receive its just appreciation amidst the inevitable references to Barney Fife and Mr. Furley. Although the Barney character certainly deserves the accolades it receives, Mr. Furley encapsulates much of the tragedy that dogs brilliant comedians.

Thus Knotts achieved a kind of perfection on the Andy Griffith Show, and amazingly extended it further in a series of movies that Hollywood unfortuately pegged to the children’s market. But those movies, forced like many of the Marx Brothers’ best films into a fundamentally compromised format, allowed Knotts to develop his painfully nervous persona without the shackles of Mayberry’s rigid moral economy. Ultimately even that format was not commercially viable, however. And although Three’s Company’s Mr. Furley may be a beloved character for many, it represents our culture’s ultimate failure to find for Knotts a venue equal to his talent.
Second or third banana to John Ritter or Tim Conway in the Disney movies hardly does him justice, but his plight wasn’t much different from the Marx Brothers and such depressing ventures as The Big Store, or Buster Keaton appearing in beach-party movies, or Steve Martin and his low-grade family fare (most recently The Pink Panther).

You can read the LA Times’ obituary here. (Forgive the registration requirement, please.) Or my own appreciation of Don Knotts from 1990.

Signage Update

I’ve added some new signs in the course of reorganizing how I present them. I’ve mostly separated Chicagoland signs from the rest of the world and I’ve reorganized most of Western Avenue Art Gallery signs into geographical pages rather than thematic. This makes it far more likely that I’ll get signs posted, since it makes them much easier to post. Check out the four new groups:

Western Avenue
Western Avenue vernacular signs

Clark Street
Clark Street vernacular signs

Pilsen
Pilsen vernacular signs

Varieties
Vernacular signs from around Chicago