mobu > Index > writing

Items tagged with writing

Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip

posted on Jan 25, 2012


posted on Feb 8, 2008
So Jen wants to know...  if you have triplets, and one of them dies, are the survivors called twins?

Eulogy for Donald Lewes Hings

by Morgan Burke, posted on Nov 6, 2007
Don Hings, 1907 - 2004
How to begin... perhaps in the same way that serious occasions are begun everywhere in the world these days.  By reminding everyone to turn off your portable 2-way radio signaling devices.

How amazing is it that these these things have become so mundane, that asking for a few minutes of radio silence isn't just a clever way to open a eulogy for a radio pioneer, but part of our common culture and etiquette, right around the world?

The walkie-talkie was described as "miraculous" when it appeared in the 1940s.  Miraculous - a word that refers to something seemingly so impossible, it would normally have to be written off as divine intervention.  If a 20 pound set that lets you talk to someone a few miles away was miraculous, then what kind of world is it that we have created today?

I use the word "we" figuratively, because most of us here did not have much to do with creating it.  But we have all been profoundly touched by one man who did.

*  *  *

Having a gifted inventor as a grandfather was... well, it was perfectly normal if that was the only grandfather you knew.  He did all the things that I thought grandfathers were supposed to do, like build Morse code toys out of cigar boxes and nine-volt batteries, and run antennas out of your bedroom window and up a tree in the backyard, so that your home-made short-wave set could pick up the Tokyo time signal.

When I was 13 I built an electrical circuit in high school shop.  It was a dinky little thing, and badly-built, frankly.  All it did was blink two lights on and off, so it was pretty darned useless, too.  But the lights actually did blink in the proscribed fashion when you connected the battery, so I got a good mark, and I was quite proud of it.  I was taking my first baby steps to being a mad scientist, which was a perfectly respectable choice of profession, as far as I could tell from grandpa's example. 

I took it up to grandpa's to show off my new-found electrical engineering prowess.  And believe it or not, he was wowed.  He was so impressed, in fact, that he had all sorts of great ideas for improving on it. 

I can't remember all of his ideas, but I'm sure that he suggested that by the addition of a rectifier and a few transistors it and one of grandma's pie-plates, it would probably make a workable satellite dish, and with a few wheels and a rocket engine, and we could probably turn it into a half-decent lunar rover.  I don't think we ever finished that project.

*  *  *

Pay television came to Vancouver some time in the early 80s.  I remember that grandpa was quite annoyed with the Cable TV companies.  The reason he was annoyed was because it was so darned easy to DE-scramble the Pay TV. 

He explained it to me once.  All you had to do was make a certain kind of electronic circuit, insert it between your cable outlet and your converter, and you just had to make sure the circuit would invert a certain signal in a certain part of the scan sequence, and... and... well, it was that easy.  I mean anybody could do it! 

I believed him, despite the fact that I had no idea how to do it even after he explained it to me.  And I was 13, so you can believe I would have done it if I could get free Pay TV.

But as far as grandpa was concerned, this stuff was child's play, and the fact that the cable companies hadn't even bothered to make the problem even slightly difficult for him was probably the most annoying thing of all.  I mean he didn't want Pay TV.  It was just more fat-heads. 

What he wanted was an interesting problem to solve.  What he was hoping is that the cable TV companies, with their billions of dollars would have been able to surpass him technically, so that he would be forced to spend an afternoon in the lab with his oscilloscopes and gadgets just to figure how they did it. 

After all, he had built his own signal scramblers onto his walkie-talkies in the 1940s -- surely they would have been able to do something really interesting in the scrambling field by now.  But they hadn't.  And it was NOT a source of pride for him that that the cable companies hadn't surpassed him in the state of the art.  It really bothered him.  He was quite sure they were capable of it, and he really and truly wanted them to do it. 

He didn't want to be rich or famous for inventing cool stuff.  He just wanted there to be more cool stuff.

And who wouldn't want that?

*  *  *

Today the English language has a word for that kind of person.  This word didn't exist in grandpa's day -- it took computers to bring it into the mainstream. 

At MIT in the 1950s, a "hack" was a prank.  In time, a hack became any project that wasn't really necessary, but was especially fun and interesting to engineer.  Great "hacks" were accomplished with style, innovation, and technical virtuosity, and the unique kind of talented engineers it took to pull this off became known as "hackers".

Now, some people think hackers are mischievous youths who like to take out other people's computer systems.  That's a misunderstanding... but on the other hand, grandpa did get into radio after taking out the local radio station with his homemade crystal set, so...

Clearly, grandpa was a hacker before computers had even been invented.  But of course he was ahead of his time in many ways.

*  *  *

In his later years, he deduced that plants talk to each other.  Kind of a crazy idea, but once you get a crazy idea like that in your head, it's kind of hard to stop thinking about it.  I mean, what on earth could they be talking about?

So grandpa took one of grandma's geraniums, and -- it's name was Gerry, by the way -- and he mounted it onto a tripod, using a special pot with certain conductive properties, and he had the poor little guy all wired up with electrodes in the soil, and attached to leaves, and cables running off to complicated instruments in the lab, and he put Gerry through the paces. 

He had a little static gun that he would aim at Gerry and pull the trigger, and boy would Gerry holler.  Not out loud of course, he was only a geranium, but the instruments that were connected to Gerry would go wild, and grandpa would provoke him more, and the instruments would go crazy again. 

Grandpa and Gerry had these little conversations for weeks, neither one fully understanding what the other was trying to say, but eventually they came to terms.  Grandpa decoded geranium-speak and they were finally able to have a real conversation.

It turns out that Gerry was asking for water, and after grandpa gave him some, Gerry really didn't have anything interesting left to say.

Now, this whole process may strike you as an exercise in futility, but it was intensely interesting for grandpa.  He had hacked a geranium, which is substantially more difficult than hacking Pay TV scramblers.  The fact that the geranium only had one thing on its mind was not surprising, especially for grandma who claimed that she knew all along what Gerry wanted, but that's beside the point.  Knowing what the geranium wanted, and being able to ask it directly to its face were two entirely different things.  To grandpa.

A number of years later I came across an article in a newspaper, describing how researchers working for the federal government had deduced that tomato plants talk to each other.  And the most amazing discovery, according to the article, was that they did it using tiny electrical currents. 

Crazy stuff, and it probably only cost a few million bucks to figure that out.  I told grandpa about this research, but he wasn't that impressed.  After all, he had already figured that out, with about 25 cents worth of spare parts.  And he didn't particularly care who got the credit for the discovery.

Plus he probably doubted that tomato plants were better conversationalists than geraniums.

*  *  *

In his last years, new ideas kept coming to him, but it got harder to tell which ones were the products of a weakening mind.  Sometimes I'd visit, and grandpa would begin rambling, and I'd think to myself that he can't quite hold onto his thoughts anymore.  And he'd ramble on for half an hour or more, and then all of a sudden, he'd reconnect this stream of consciousness back to where he had begun, and I'd realize that he wasn't lost at all -- he knew full well where he was going with this conversation.  He was just connecting the dots more freely than he ever had before, certainly more freely than anyone else could hope to follow.

But that's always how he worked.

And this made me wonder -- what if he could see patterns that were obvious to him, and invisible to us, and he simply couldn't explain it in terms we could understand?  What if everything that seemed impossible, were in fact possible... with a little tinkering, that is, and 50 cents worth of parts from Canadian Tire?  That would be an incredible, miraculous world.

That is the world grandpa lived in his entire life.  I hope it's the world he left behind for the rest of us, but it's going to be hard to tell with him gone.

The Point of Honour
Let me die so- Under some rosy-golden sunset, saying A good thing, for a good cause! By the sword, The point of honour---by the hand of one Worthy to be my foeman, let me fall- Steel in my heart, and laughter on my lips! --Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act IV (1898)

Mordor is Transylvania, apparently.

posted on Jul 2, 2007

While I'm posting cool, creative things that other people have done, I might as well include this thought-provoking image of Middle Earth, projected onto Europe with a lowered sea level:

Now, I've been to Transylvania, and it was pretty nice (see below). But then again, it's been several thousand years since Sauron was ruining the neighbourhood, so they've had some time to get over it. Except for that little Dracula thing. And Ceaucescu. Okay, maybe they haven't completely gotten over it. But close.

A new look for Mobu

posted on Apr 29, 2007
In lieu of being truly creative and writing something, I decided to update the look of Mobu.  It's a work in progress, so there may be some glitches for now.  I'm trying to keep it clean, so at least 50% of the design effort is in simple stuff like font selection and use of white space.  Read more here.

Motorcycling in Romania

by Morgan Burke, posted on Jan 22, 2005

"Chicletta!" says the little boy, giving me a big grin and bouncing on his seat.

"Chocolata?" I ask, misunderstanding his two-year-old mind's intent. I mime the eating of bonbons.

The boy laughs and make motor noises. "Chicletta! Chicletta!"

"Bicicletta," his father explains in Romanian, nodding at my Suzuki, parked beside this Transylvanian mountain cabana. The arrival of a Japanese motorcycle at this remote hovel is apparently an extraordinary event. Sometimes in Romania I feel like I'm driving a Ferrari, not a ten-year-old dirt bike with bald tires and no working lights.

It is my hope that the Suzuki will carry me all the way to Turkey, and if it does, then my hope will be that it carries me all the way back to Amsterdam, where I started. A motorcycle tour of Eastern Europe has long been a dream of mine. Unfortunately, the amount of motorcycle my money could buy in Western Europe turned out to be much less than expected. Not that anyone notices in Romania.

Gaby, a policeman on holiday from the Black Sea coast, wants to know how much the Suzuki cost. I inventory all the defective parts, eager to prove that I'm no Aristotle Onassis, but perhaps this has the opposite effect. It still comes to two and a half years worth of Gaby's salary.

It's easy to lose all sense of value in Romania. My bed tonight- --in a private hut---is costing me $4.50, and it's possible that that is an inflated rate for foreigners. Okay, there's no electricity, and shepherds keep leading their flocks through the yard, and the mountain dogs wake me up in the middle of the night barking at the Transylvanian moon (I chased one around in a groggy stupor last night, fully intending to kick it if I could). But that's all added value in the end. One mustn't expect dull silence in the land that gave birth to Dracula and Ceaucescu.

The riding is both rewarding and perilous. The main roads curve and roll through lush vales, dotted with haystacks, silver church domes, and tiled village roofs topped with storks' nests. But they are also little more than two-lane moonscapes, with a hodgepodge of competing traffic, including wandering cows, horse- drawn gypsy caravans, smoking East German Trabants, and great diesel-belching East Bloc transport trucks.

Although the occasional moped ventures out onto the roads, motorcycles are a rarity. Villagers and farm workers all stop and stare as the Suzuki rattles by. None of the drivers seem to know how to share the road with something of more than 50cc. More than once I am driven off the road by aggressive oncomers who decide that the presence of a motorcycle means the lane is empty and available for passing. Not that they are any more sensible in the presence of cars; no rule of the road will be left unbroken in an effort to pass in the flats. In the mountains, however, few cars seem to be able to muster enough firing cyclinders to get past the crawling trucks. Then my own aggression takes over, peaking one afternoon when I find myself splitting two lanes of opposing traffic on a mountain curve. Nobody honks, however, and while I'm marvelling at the stupidity of the move I've just pulled off, everyone else is probably wishing they could do the same.

Somehow the bike just rattles on, holding itself together through all this. I find myself using scotch tape to make sundry repairs, from reattaching the horn, which fell off in Hungary, to holding the license plate together, since it is cracking up from the continuous punishment dealt out by the Transylvanian roads. So far I haven't figured out how to use the tape to stop the oil leaks. But I'm working on it.

That morning the chain was threatening to jump the sprocket for the third time, so I pulled into a mechanic to see if I could get them to loosen the wheel nut (it was on too tight for me and my little spanner wrench). They not only do so, but insist on performing the entire chain adjustment themselves, and then try to charge me 5000 lei. I've noticed their rates, scrawled on a piece of paper taped to the wall: 4000 lei/hour. I tap my watch and complain in broken Romanian (frequently consulting my phrasebook) that it only took ten minutes, and they are charging me for more than an hour's work. No, they explain, 4000 lei per hour is the rate for domestic cars, the Romanian Dacias. Once again, my roach of a Suzuki is an exotic piece of foreign machinery, even when the work only consists of turning a couple of screws. I pay 4000 lei, only about $2.50, but I still feel stung.

The low prices are only a part of the time warp one experiences driving through Transylvania. The peasants with their giant hand-made scythes and hay rakes, the donkey carts full of swaddled children, the hand-made lace that old women try to sell you in the shadow of medieval castles; this is no longer the West. This is barely even the 20th century. Tire repairmen advertise their shops by nailing a tire to a utility pole, the same way blacksmiths of old would hang a horseshoe. Even the omnipresent icons of American culture are not of this time: the Coca Cola is still served in slim glass bottles, and the disco blaring from the bar across the road has an ancient Gypsy zing to it.

I'm a transient, however, and I must move on. The next morning I climb on the Suzuki and head for the Black Sea. The treadless wheel, coated in mud from the cabana access road, spins as it hits the pitted blacktop. I have to cross into the opposite lane to pass some goats, and then back to avoid a grumbling diesel behemoth. My hand signal must look like a wave to the truck driver, because he honks at me or perhaps at my infinitely exotic foreign machine. I would honk back if the horn worked.

Short Fiction
data file, posted on Jan 14, 2005
Writing of Mobu
fiction, essays, and screenwriting


Things that mobu likes, things that mobu does, things that mobu makes, things that mobu thinks.