Monthly ArchiveMarch 2012



Commentary & technology 31 Mar 2012 07:36 am

Shades of the future

The future’s so bright you may have to wear shades — not to shield the eyes, but to help you recognize people and places.

Tech gurus, including Nick Bilton of the New York Times, speculate that Google will release smart eyeglasses by year’s end. These specs would record information for the wearer in real time, share it via a 3G or 4G connection with Google’s servers, and overlay useful data on a small screen a few inches from the user’s eyes.

If the smart-glasses wearer stood alongside a busy urban street, for instance, this screen might indicate nearby restaurants and shopping centers. The glasses could help the wearer navigate to a particular destination or find the nearest copy of the local newspaper. (Marketing possibilities are limitless.)

Time Magazine speculates that future versions of these new Google goggles — and you’ve gotta love that people are already hypothesizing about later iterations before the first version has been confirmed — might recognize faces. So that all-too-common panic you feel when a person whose name you should know but don’t approaches at a cocktail party or in the grocery store may soon be extinct.

While some privacy advocates may be concerned about security implications (what if somebody is wearing smart glasses in the restroom and sees me with my fly down?), you know the general public will take to them like mosquitoes to sweat. We love new gadgets, and with a potential price tag between $250 and $600, they’d cost no more than most phones.

If such glasses are really coming, and if a future version provides facial-recognition help, I’ll be the first in line.

Remembering names is one of my weaknesses. I meet hundreds of new students every year, and I struggle with their names the same way poor Sisyphus pushes that boulder up a hill. Students start the year sitting in strict alphabetical order to help me assimilate names more quickly, but long after other teachers have them pegged cold, I’m still sneaking surreptitious peaks at my seating chart to remember who is who.

I use all the standard mnemonic tricks, such as rhyme (Fred, redhead), association (Mary sits on my left, married people have wedding rings on their left hands; therefore, that’s Mary), acronyms (Row 1: Marcus, Adam, Yale, Dale, Alyce, Yates — the first letters of their names spell “mayday”) and visualization (placing a mental picture of each student along a hypothetical driving route). All of these help, at least until I change the seating chart or see students at the mall, where suddenly Mary is on my right or Adam is walking beside Fred from another class, in which case my entire schema crumbles and I stand there with mouth agape, making sophisticated comments like, “Hey, you’re that kid from fifth period!”

What’s weird is that I remember conversations with students, particular papers that they’ve written and even where they sat in class for years, but their names disappear over a three-day weekend. Meanwhile, on those rare occasions when I am “in the zone,” I can recall dozens of people with no problem whatsoever, only to turn a corner — literally or figuratively — and have it all pop like a soap bubble. I’m tempted to blame age, except this has been going on for decades.

Nor is my name forgetfulness confined to students. I have a tough time with adults,as well, maybe as part of a low-grade social phobia. I attended a recent social event (something I avoid whenever possible) and was relieved when the first object I was handed was a name tag. Instantly, my high anxiety was downgraded to generalized angst, which is a place I’m at so frequently that I’ve been named mayor.

If I’m being totally honest here, I may be afraid of forgetting names more often than I actually forget them. Fear of forgetting — or being forgotten — is athazagoraphobia, which is a word that virtually begs to be forgotten.

Regardless, my problem could be solved with a pair of these wicked, hypothetical, future specs, just as a smart phone’s GPS feature has solved directional impairment for many people. I want to see little Johnny’s name materialize on a screen next to my eye, even as a tiny angelic choir celebrates my relief with a spirited rendition of Hallelujah in my hippocampus.

Now if Google can just develop a pair of glasses to make me invisible, I’d say the future was bright, indeed.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

Originally published March 29, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 22 Mar 2012 11:38 pm

Dirt in the sweeper goes ’round and ’round

Watching the canister of my new vacuum fill with dirt is almost hypnotic.

The air swirls round and round with cyclonic force, and soon, as if by magic, the little hamsters whose treadmill-pattering feet drive the motor have allowed the machine to collect another load. It is a measure of how empty my life is that I find this compelling.

My new Bissell Powerforce Helix is the first time I’ve gone the bagless route with a vacuum. A creature of custom, I’ve always preferred to use bags, even though my wife has told me for years that the world of suction has moved beyond this old model and in exciting new directions. In my usual Luddite fashion, I have resisted, but now in a matter of days, I have become an enthusiastic convert.

Not that the switch has been easy. First came the realization that my old sweeper had gone from sucking in a good way to sucking in a bad way. Even after hours on the surgical table, during which I replaced its belt and cleaned its hoses (all while hearing the narration from the opening credits of “The Six Million Dollar Man” in my fevered head — “We can rebuild him … We have the technology …) it was doing little more than moving dirt from Point A to Point B. Somewhere, somebody was playing the requiem dirge.

A trip to the store revealed that replacements run the price gamut from $47 to $599. I find the concept of paying $599 for a vacuum ridiculous, although I suppose if you’re the type who gives the butler a c-note to pick up a loaf of bread and milk from the store and doesn’t bother asking for the change that it makes sense.

My philosophy with any type of mechanical equipment — including sweepers, lawn mowers and automobiles — is to purchase the least expensive models, work them hard and replace them three times more often than people who buy expensive versions.

Look, I know myself: I’m not going to keep up on the maintenance, and my three extra purchases are going to cost the same over time as one large cash outlay. Plus, I get the enjoyment of three new pieces of equipment to a do-it-yourselfer’s one. So keep polishing and finessing that Cadillac of mowers or Porsche of vacuums if you want; I’ll be footloose and fancy-free with my Kia Soul and Nissan Cube models.

I freely admit that my bargain-basement vacuum doesn’t do some tasks as well

as more expensive versions. For example, that $599 model has more attachments than a corrupt politician — you could sweep the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or pull little Timmy out of a well once you snapped together all its nozzles and hoses.

The new Helix also wouldn’t do much to repel burglars or fend off cookie-peddling Girl Scouts. It’s so light that an infant could bench press it. When I was younger, we had an all-metal Electrolux sweeper that I swear my great-great-great-grandfather once used to defend the Alamo, and that a great-uncle brandished when he stormed the beach at Anzio. I myself earned gym credit for using it every Friday night as part of the all-house cleaning regimen.

(That’s right — we cleaned the house on Friday nights when I was a boy. None of this “go hang out with your friends at the mall” and “Internet on your smartphone malarkey” for my generation. Wanna know what my Internet was? A set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias that we earned one volume a week at Sparkle’s Market. I shudder to think how many broccoli spears I had to choke down just for volumes W and XYZ alone.)

So I won’t be defending Casa Schillig from home invaders with my Bissell Powerforce Helix anytime soon. But if all else fails, I can simply turn it on. If my attackers are anything like me, they’ll be so entranced by the sight of swirling cat hair that I can pick them off one by one with the toaster. Which is also fairly new, but still packs a pretty mean punch.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Review on March 22, 2012.

Commentary & Family life 17 Mar 2012 09:56 am

Let’s back up and see the rainbow

For most of my adult life, I’ve been mocked by a meteorological misunderstanding.

“Mocked” is a strong word, but it fits. The bullies in this case are not friends or colleagues, who can sometimes make life a living heck (family newspaper) for square pegs living in their round-holed world. No, it is my family, the very people forced to take you back no matter how stupid you may be.

Even worse, the prime bully is my own mother.

The incident that set off a 30-year volley of weather-related laughter at my expense happened when I was a teenager, riding in the backseat of the family car with my nose stuck in a book while the rest of the family yammered on about things I had no interest in.

I don’t remember the book. I don’t even remember, honestly, if I had a book. Or if I was in the backseat. But anytime I go anywhere as a passenger — even today, at age 43 and three-fourths — I take something to occupy my time. So if I was riding, a book was involved. And if I was riding as a teen, I was relegated to the backseat, both because Mom has always loved my sister more and because in the backseat I could skulk like the morose, angst-ridden outcast I so desperately wanted to be.

Anyway, we were riding through a rainstorm when suddenly clouds parted and the sun shone through, producing a beautiful rainbow. It must have been a real stunner if it pulled me out of the imaginary world of a novel and into real life.

It was also, unfortunately, very short-lived. As we drove out of the rain, the rainbow disappeared. My mom expressed disappointment and I uttered the words that have haunted me ever since: “Let’s back up and see the rainbow.”

The instantaneous response was gales of laughter.

“You can’t back up and see a rainbow, dear,” my mother explained. “It’s there and then it’s gone. But it’s sweet that you’re so optimistic.”

She might not have said exactly those words, which sound a little too much like June Cleaver. Her actual response might have been more like, “You can’t back up and see a rainbow, you moron,” but I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt.

At any rate, my words immediately entered the family lexicon as the epitome of cockeyed, Pollyannaish optimism. Whenever anybody expresses a crazy hope or entertains the notion of an extreme long shot — “Maybe the Indians will take the pennant” or “Maybe Mel Gibson will win a feminist of the year award” — somebody (usually my mother) will pipe up with, “Let’s back up and see the rainbow.”

If one thing really riles the pessimist in me, it’s being labeled an optimist.

So out of desperation, I took the issue to the one person my mother respects more than anybody else: Hollie Strano of WKYC Channel 3, whom Mom refers to in hushed tones of reverence usually reserved for the Pope.

Strano didn’t respond (she obviously doesn’t understand her position in my mother’s pantheon), but my backup email to WKYC chief meteorologist Betsy Kling* brought the following answer:

“There are several factors to consider when seeing a rainbow — 1) your viewing angle, which would be changing since you are in a moving vehicle; 2) movement of the rain; 3) movement of the clouds behind you that could obscure the sun.

“Chances are you would be able to back up and see the rainbow come back into view, although much of that would depend on how far the car traveled from the best viewing angle and how quickly that best viewing angle is changing based on the rain movement. All of that is dependent upon the idea that no clouds would obscure the sunlight before it reaches that best viewing angle.”

By ignoring everything that comes after “Chances are you would be able to back up and see the rainbow,” I conclude that I was correct on that long-ago day in that long-ago backseat, and that the years of torment I have endured were entirely ill-founded.

It is also my contention that while I could likely sue for mental abuse and accompanying distress (and win), I would be satisfied with a sincere apology and a plate of no-bake cookies arranged in a rainbow pattern.

Actually, Mom, you can skip the apology. Just send cookies.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

*Kling also sent a shout-out to both Alliance and Don Pancho’s.

This column was originally published March 15,  2012, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Movies 08 Mar 2012 10:12 pm

Back to Barsoom

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.

The above words are from the first chapter of “A Princess of Mars,” which purports to be the memoirs of one John Carter, a Confederate soldier and uncle of fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Carter’s adventures on our solar system’s fourth planet, which we call Mars but which its inhabitants call “Barsoom,” arrive on the big screen Friday courtesy of Disney Studios, but they were first chronicled in a series of stories that Burroughs began 100 years ago.

I first encountered John Carter in the pages of some Canaveral Press hardbacks that I borrowed from the Marlington Middle School library in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There, I revelled in Carter’s adventures with the savage, green-skinned Tharks, fierce warriors with four arms; thrilled to his attempts to save the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris from the clutches of her many enemies; and fantasized about sharing Carter’s super-strength, a byproduct of gravitational differences between Earth and Mars.

I don’t remember much of what I learned in class during my misspent youth, but I’ve never forgotten those novels.

In retrospect, I was the perfect age to discover Burroughs. I had outgrown L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and wasn’t yet ready for the more violent adventures of Robert E. Howard’s Conan or the more intellectual rigors of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

Burroughs was a good stopgap. His authorial stance that Carter was his real-life relative added a layer of reality and made me another in a long line of boys (including noted fantasy writers Ray Bradbury and Michael Moorcock) who stood outside on warm spring nights, staring up at what we imagined was Mars and, like Carter, tried to send ourselves there through the power of our mind and astral projection.

Never mind what science taught about the inhospitable nature of Mars; the real Mars was the arid landscapes, dry canals and swashbuckling action that Burroughs sketched through words in his novels.

After the 11 John Carter novels, I moved on to some of the author’s other creations, including stories of adventurer David Innes that took place in the Earth’s hollow center, dubbed Pellucidar by Burroughs; Carson Napier, who called Earth’s other neighbor astronomical neighbor, Venus, his home; and of course, Tarzan of the Apes, who stands beside Superman and Sherlock Holmes as one of the most recognizable fictional creations in the world.

Even the novel’s titles were promises of adventure: “The Warlord of Mars,” “At the Earth’s Core,” “The Wizard of Venus,” “The Beasts of Tarzan,” and dozens more. Burroughs, equal parts romanticist and entrepreneur, was nothing if not prolific, churning out titles that he sometimes dictated aloud and turning to self-publishing to keep a higher percentage of the profits.

Rereading “A Princess of Mars” and some of the other Martian novels today, I’m struck by the stilted dialogue, repetitive nature of the plots and often-purple prose. Nevertheless, I’m still carried away by the author’s take-no-prisoners narrative style, a hallmark of which is a sense that anything could happen at any time, on any page. Writers don’t stay in print so long without some connection to the reader: For Burroughs, that link is pure wish-fulfillment. No red-blooded American boy who reads these novels can put them down without wishing that he, too, could be John Carter.

To the uninitiated, “John Carter” the movie looks like a thin copy of “Star Wars” by way of “Avatar,” but those in the know recognize Burrough’s Barsoom adventures as the precursor to both franchises — and many others, as well.

(First published March 8, 2011 in The Alliance Review)

Commentary 01 Mar 2012 09:23 pm

New revenue stream

I’ve always known I’m ahead of my time, but now I have proof.

Earlier this month, USA Today reported on a fundraising effort by Dixie State College in Utah to offer naming rights for toilets. According to the article, the school gave donors the opportunity for immortality with plaques on stall doors in the restroom of a planned musical theater building. (If it had been the campus poker club, they could have branded it “The Royal Flush.”)

The impending story must have raised a … uh, stink, as the Web page touting the opportunity mysteriously disappeared before the article was published. I smell a rat, or maybe a mortified administration.

Either way, I was touting similar naming rights three years ago in this space. In a column headlined “A sign of immortality” on Oct. 8, 2009, I wrote:

I will never have anything significant named after me. I haven’t donated enough to any alma mater to merit so much as a brick inscribed with my name.

Even if I did, I wouldn’t want my moniker hovering on a sign above a campus building. It would only irritate me when students couldn’t pronounce “Schillig.” If somebody asked them where the deviant psych class is this semester, they’d answer, “Over in Schilling,” putting an “n” in it so it sounded like the British coin, or butchering it in various and sundry ways like my sixth-period English students do. They’ve settled on calling me Shagiggle, which is about as close as most telemarketers get, so I don’t bother to correct them anymore.

And later in the piece, in a burst of prescience worthy of Nostradamus, I offered: It might be nice to have something smaller named after me. The “Chris Schillig Memorial Urinal” has a nice ring, and everybody would have to stand up to acknowledge it.

I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Come to think of it, I did. Or didn’t. Oh, it’s all so trifling and confused, as Alice Walker might put it.

Now that the rest of the fundraising world has caught up with me (being a trailblazer isn’t nearly as fun as you might think), I’m ready to up the ante yet again. Not only would urinal-naming rights provide a new revenue stream, but the little pink cakes in the bottom of the units are another untapped source for your average Tom, Dick and Harry to give back to a school without the permanence of a brass nameplate.

Because the cake rapidly deteriorates under normal operating conditions, money-hungry fundraising committees could meet money-conscious alumni halfway. A much smaller donation — maybe as little as ten bucks — would earn a couple weeks of men looking down on your name or your company’s name or product.

That’s something even a poor, humble wage slave like me could afford.

But who am I kidding? Since I graduated in 1990 with a keen mind and a mullet that was the envy of fellow students, the sum total of my donations to my alma mater is the same as singer Chris Brown’s charitable offerings to domestic-violence shelters: zip, zero, nada, zilch.

I’m not exactly proud of this. Certainly I’ve meant to donate, starting with the creamy-papered letters in vellum envelopes that showed up regularly during the first year after graduation when my fortunes were such that Ramen noodles and King Dons were gourmet meals and I had to hock my electric guitar to make the rent. (No loss there; I was hardly Eddie Van Halen.)

Eventually, I was B-listed, and the fancy letters signed by the college president turned into less gracious notes on cheap copier paper robo-signed by minor functionaries. The school was cutting its losses, and I don’t blame it. These days, I’m lucky to get one or two postcards a year, which I put aside with good intentions, but end up doodling phone numbers or grocery lists on instead.

But here’s my vow, oh School Whose Name Has Been Redacted To Protect Its Reputation: If you ever offer naming rights to toilet stalls or urinals, I promise to … well, to think about donating very seriously.

Now if my alma mater were only in Flushing, Queens, those bathroom naming rights would be a slam dunk. Or is that a certifiable swirly?