Saturday, July 21, 2007

Helmet Heads, Streetcars and Anita O'Day

Of myriad thoughts and experiences of this day, I’ll share three:

• When you are bald and ride a motor scooter, after removing your helmet, you have no worries about displaying flattened hair, a condition known as “helmet head.” For this I am grateful.

• The Oregonian this morning informs us that City Commissioner Sam Adams wants to expand streetcar service throughout the city. If the streetcar system he has in mind treats its passengers as captive audiences for piped-in commercials announcing city intersections as being “sponsored” by this or that advertiser, I do not wish him well.

• On my two-mile, eight-lap walk around Wilson High School’s track, my iPod in my ear, I am listening to jazz singer Anita O’Day, who died last November in Los Angeles at age 87. I have never paid much attention to “My Ship,” the song she is singing, but because she is singing it, I cling to its words. Anita O’Day is, as they say, “making it her own.” The piano accompanist is spare and rich and sealing the deal. A weakness of digital music is that the names of accompanists vanish, but I suspect the pianist behind O'Day is Oscar Peterson. As you read the lyrics below, imagine Peterson’s lilting, textured piano and O’Day’s dusky alto meting out the words in crafted phrasing. Imagine the music lightening a pace around a track.

My ship has sails that are made of silk
The decks are trimmed with gold
And of jam and spice
There's a paradise in the hold

My ship's aglow with a million pearls
And rubies fill each bin
The sun sits high in a sapphire sky
When my ship comes in

I can wait the years till it appears
One fine day one spring
But the pearls and such
They don't mean much
If there's missing just one thing

I do not care if that day arrives
That dream need never be
If the ship I sing
Doesn't also bring
My own true love to me

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Friday, July 20, 2007

DA OKs ripping signs from utility poles

A week ago I wrote Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk an open letter asking whether I would be in violation of the law for my dogged, civic-minded tearing down of commercial signs ("1-800-Got Junk," "College House Painters," "Jobdango" etc.) posted on utility poles in the public right of way. An Oregonian story had reported that Schrunk's office questioned the constitutionality of a city ordinance prohibiting posting such signs in the public right of way.

Today I got a interesting response from Schrunk. Bottom line: I'm free to rip these little blighters off the poles. Unanswered: What exactly are the constitutional concerns that the DA's office and the Portland City Commissioners have?

Here's what Schrunk wrote:

Dear Mr. Seifert:

I have reviewed the questions you posed in your email regarding
signs on utility poles. I understand and appreciate your concern for the
blight caused by numerous signs being posted or attached to utility
poles in your neighborhood and others. Pursuant to Oregon law, my office
has been given responsibility for prosecution of Portland City criminal
ordinances. However, in this case, the Portland City Council has
expressed concerns about this ordinance and a desire to rework its
applicability from a constitutional perspective. The ordinance you cite
in your email, Advertising on the Streets, was enacted by the Portland
City Council many years ago. However, in 2002 both City Council and the
Portland City Attorney's office expressed concern about the
constitutionality of the language in this ordinance. At that time, the
City Council stated that they would be discussing this "controversial
item" with the intent to propose new language that they believed was
constitutionally supportable. However, as of this date, that apparently
has never been done.

In regards to your specific questions regarding whether you are
guilty of theft if you remove signs placed on utility poles, which are
indeed private property. My office would not prosecute a person for
taking signs off a utility pole that were not placed there by the owner
of the pole or placed there with the owner's permission. It would be
necessary for any person intending to remove anything from the private
property of another to ensure that the removal was with the permission
of the property owner.

The same reasoning applies to removing graffiti found on public
property. My office would not prosecute a person for removing graffiti
that was placed on public property as long as the owner of the public
property-i.e. the City, the County, or other governmental agencies-had
not granted permission for that graffiti to be placed on that public
property. Again, however, given some of the precarious places that
graffiti can be found, a person seeking to remove graffiti from the
property of another should first check with the property owner for

Again, I do appreciate your concern for what you describe as
"massive signage blight," and I hope this response addresses your

Very truly yours,

Michael D. Schrunk

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

On typewriters and cat-eating coyotes

It’s tempting to continue following “The History Detectives’” bungled story about the typewriter suspected of having belonged to Ernie Pyle.

The subject has attracted record traffic to the Red Electric.

And just think, I had hoped — if that’s the right word — to write about coyotes’ devouring neighborhood cats.

It’s a challenge, but I’m going to try both … and hope an elegant transition between the two emerges.

Alan Hale of the on-line Portable Typewriter Forum suggests that the History Detectives may have come up with the right conclusion about the typewriter — but for the wrong reasons.

The PBS sleuths, you recall, were trying to determine whether a Corona #3 portable, which now belongs to Eric Warlick of Portland, had once belonged to Pyle, the famed World War II correspondent.

The detectives concluded that Warlick’s typewriter was at least not the one used to write one of Pyle’s last letters from Okinawa before the WWII correspondent was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Their conclusion was based on a difference in the numeral “1” as it appeared in the letter and in the way the typewriter produced it. Their “expert” was ignorant of the fact that Pyle simply may have used the lower case “L” to make a “1,” and that Warlick’s typewriter was fully capable of doing just that as well as producing a real “1” by using a shift key. For the full discussion, go to my earlier post.

(At this point you may be looking forward to hearing about the coyotes and the demise of the neighbors’ cats, but bear with me .... )

Hale says the program’s “document expert” could have pointed to other evidence showing the typewriter’s typing didn’t match up with the typing on the letter. Hale offers some qualifications for his judgment, but here is his analysis.

“… The overall lengths of the samples were different,” which, he admits, could be attributed to variations in reproducing up the samples for display.

But, he continues, “Regardless, both the shapes and the internal proportions of the characters (both letters and numerals), and the typefaces as a whole, are distinctly different … the letter bows were much taller and fuller in proportion to the overall height on the Pyle (letter) sample.

“Besides the differences in shape, the Corona's typeface seems to be both shorter and narrower within a given character's Pica space and with generally shorter serifs, leaving more apparent space between characters — assuming, of course, that it wasn't a paste-up (distortion).”

I’d only add that if I were Ernie Pyle and dependent on a functioning typewriter in the battlefield, I’d have a back-up under my cot back at the base camp. Eric Warlick may have one; the letter may have been typed on the other.

Let’s see. An artful transition to coyotes and cats.

How about “There’s a war zone of a different sort closer to home and it is taking its toll on the neighborhood cats.”

Oh, never mind. Let’s cut to the chase, which happens to be coyotes’ chasing down and devouring neighborhood cats.

I fear that Marlin and Taco many be the latest feline victims.

According to missing notices places around our neighborhood Marlin is “lost” and Taco is “on the lam.”

Let’s hope so.

But Mike Sallee, who lives near Robert Gray Middle School, has seen families of coyotes emerging from the forested ravine behind the school. It happens that the missing cat postings define the area around the ravine. And recently, Sallee reports, a horrified group neighbors discovered the remains of a half eaten cat near the ravine.

Moreover, a few months back, I reported here that I spotted a coyote crossing our street around 11 p.m. at a place that happens to be an extension of the draw that feeds the ravine.

Portlanders pride themselves on this city’s being “weird,” but Portland is both weird and wild. Forest Park and its adjacent natural parks provide a corridor of more than 10 miles of wilderness. Elk have been spotted in our neighborhood. Eagles soar above us. Raccoons, of course, scuttle about in the night. I recently saw one disappear into a concrete road culvert fifty yards from my house.

Marlin and Taco may have placed themselves at the dangerous intersection between their laid-back domestication and the wilderness that surrounds us.

And I must confess, as I write this, our own cat, Izzy, persists in (no, insists on) exploring the same wilderness. Fortunately we live at some distance from the ravine. But is it a safe distance?

We bring Iz in before dusk and let him out after dawn. So far he has not gone “lost” or “on the lam.”

So far ….

I’d rather write about typewriters.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Slow news; Sad news

It may not move the market, as they say on Wall Street, or make the world safe from terrorism, but the story of the little “History Detective” flub chronicled on this site does have the whiff of news.

That’s why I contacted four reporters – three at The Oregonian and one at a local TV station — and referred them to the story — local angle and all. Local typewriter owner, local typewriter repair guy featured.

One Oregonian reporter looked at it and passed it on to another who has yet to call me.

It would seem that no one is exactly scrambling on this.

Another reason the surging Internet beats Old Media is the former's "exclusives" about the “little” things in life.

In the meantime, the yarn about the could-be Ernie Pyle Corona has turned up some sad news for typewriter lovers in Portland.

I called Matt McCormack at Ace Typewriter to tell him the latest fall-out from the story. The master typewriter repairman was featured on the “History Detectives” episode. He rarely checks the Internet, which is a step up (or down?) from his old vow never to touch a computer.

Anyway, in his own low-key way he hit me with the news that his landlord, who has blessed Ace with low rent for years, has announced that the storefront building will be demolished soon.

Ace and its dozens of typewriters and adding machines (to say nothing of bins of typewriter bits and pieces) will have to be moved to the basement of the big house owned by Matt and his dad, Dennis. Mercifully the house is nearby.

The loss on North Lombard will be huge. Ace Typewriter has been at 7433 since Dennis started it 46 years ago.

Demolish the place? They should turn it into a living monument.

In Japan, they would declare Matt, Dennis and Ace to be national treasures. Priceless.

Here, in our wisdom, everything has a price.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Failed forensics on "The History Detectives"

The History Detectives may turn out to be the Inspector Clouseaus of typewriter sleuthing.

On last night’s episode of “The History Detectives,” one of their gumshoes set out to find out whether a typewriter, a Corona #3 to be exact, had in fact belonged to famed World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle just prior to his being killed by a Japanese sniper on an island near Okinawa.

A “writing forensics” expert’s compared typed impressions of a date in a letter written by Pyle just before he died, with those on the same date as typed on the Corona said to be his last typewriter. The typewriter is owned by Eric Warlick of Portland, whose grandfather won it in a poker game from a man who claimed to have been with Pyle when he died.

Based on the comparison, the expert concluded that the typewriter was not the one used to write Pyle’s letter.

The evidence: the number “1” looked different in the two dates.

Closed case.

Not so fast, say several members of the Portable Typewriter Forum, to which I happen to belong.

While the Corona has a number “1,” it is rather awkward to use. You have to depress a figure key, similar to the “CAP” key below it. With the “FIG” key depressed, the typist hits what is normally the “Q,” to get a “1.”

To avoid that typing anomaly, many typists simply used the lower case letter “L.” Indeed, many early typewriters had no number “1” so the typists were accustomed to using the lower case “L” as a substitute for the number "1."

That may be what Pyle did on his Corona, out of habit or convenience or both. But when the "history detective" typed the date on the typewriter, he used the FIG key to get the number “1,” and the forensics expert mistakenly concluded that Pyle’s letter was written on a different typewriter.

The fact is that the jury is still out.

I happen to have a Corona #3 (see photos) and indeed the number “1” and the lower case “L” are strikingly (no pun intended) different (see below). But both dates were written on the SAME typewriter.

And yes, if I had used several brands of typewriter, as Pyle did, I’d find shifting with the FIG key a pain and simply resort to using the “L” as a "1." (Note, in the photo above, the “FIG” keys – one on each side – and the “Q/1” key.)

Even if the episode on Pyle’s typewriter got viewers to a questionable “destination,” the trip was fun, including a stop at Ace Typewriter in North Portland where Matt McCormack had the chance to show off his typewriter chops.

The program will be rebroadcast tomorrow, Wednesday, July 18, at 11 p.m. on Channel 10.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Someone Please Explain ....

Al Gore’s book, “The Assault on Reason,” is something of a hymn to media literacy, even though he never says so in those words.

A core argument in his book is that television has utterly debased political discourse in America. Emotion, particularly raw fear, has utterly expelled reason in what the nation’s founders always assumed would be the free and open marketplace of ideas.

Now the marketplace has been decimated a societal suicide bomb of irrational shrapnel and mayhem. (Those are my overheated words, not Gore’s.)

Gore was defeated 5 votes to 4 — by a partisan Supreme Court. That he won the people’s vote may be the best counter-argument to his fears. But that was before 9/11 and the unraveling we have seen since.

Now for the strange parts in Gore’s media literacy riff.

Gore repeats the widely cited statistic that the average American watches 4 hours and 35 minutes of TV a day. That’s always been a frightening figure. I like to point out that it amounts to something like 17 solid years of the average person’s life.

But Gore puts it in a new context. “When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep, and couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat, and commute, [time devoted to TV] is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time that the average America has. Younger Americans, on average, spend even more time watching TV.”

We are, in short, numbing ourselves in our “off-hours.” Aldous Huxley and “Brave New World” were closer to the truth than George Orwell and “1984.” Both are well worth rereading, and not just for their contrasting visions of the future.

Gore adds this bizarre and new (to me at least) finding, and the one I desperately need some help with:

“…the majority of Internet users report that they watch television — at least some of the time — while they use the Internet. Sixty percent of those who use both media simultaneously report that they regularly have the television on while they are using the internet. Studies show not only a continued increase in the average time Americans spend watching television each day but also an increase in the average time spent by Internet users watching the television while they use the Internet.”

I don’t get it.

Is this some weird multi-tasking, or multi-zoning out? Talk about a best-case scenario for attention-deficit disorder.

I’ve heard of folks who keep the TV on all the time to “keep them company” (whatever happened to the joys of solitude?) but why would you want the tube on while you are on the internet? Perhaps it’s a security blanket for the freedom offered by the internet’s welcoming invitation to inter-action. Even as we respond, we must be immersed in the babblings of an unquestionable source (TV), however questionable it might be.

I highly recommend Gore’s book, which serves as prima facie evidence that he still should be president. A Gandhi excepted, Gore is about as un-Bush-like a leader as one could hope for.

Let us count the ways….

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Inside Ace Typewriter

Tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 10, “The History Detectives” will present an episode that takes them to Ace Typewriter on Portland’s N. Lombard Street.
Floating around in my computer, I have eight chapters of a book about my passion for old typewriters. Today, I dug out my chapter about Ace and its owners, Matt and Dennis McCormack. I’ve shortened it to share with you here.

[The photo on the right was taken at “Typewriter Day” 2005, which I organized at the Hillsdale Branch Library. These old machines do turn heads…and work out fingers.]

The small storefront next to a tire dealership gave every appearance of being open, but the door was locked. A dozen old typewriters filled the display window. Each had its own story, as I was to learn.

I could see a light in the back of the otherwise darkened shop, and I thought I detected movement. I knocked, waited, knocked again and finally the stooped figure of Dennis McCormack came to the door. His son, Matt, who now runs the place, would be back in a few minutes, Dennis said as he invited me to wait inside.

Dennis, who is in his 80s, has serious sight problems and less serious hearing ones. As I waited, he told me how he had started Ace Typewriter in 1961 and how his long affair with the typewriter began. After graduating from the University of Portland, Dennis served in the Navy in the South Pacific in World War II. On ship, he was recruited away from a gunners’ crew when a first mate learned he could type. After that he was responsible for typing the ship’s daily log.

After the war, he worked for a while at the service desk at United Airlines before he launched Ace Typewriter with the help of an acquaintance who ran a typewriter shop on Market Street in San Francisco.

Dennis sold typewriters to students at his old alma mater, the University of Portland, which is a mile or so from his shop. For two decades, he had the repair contract for the university’s legions of typewriters.

He had a good run at the shop, before typewriters were phased out and replaced by computers.
As Dennis ended his story, Matt returned. and Dennis retreated to his office space behind a low partition. There he reads through a large mounted magnifying glass. He has pinned postcards of the Virgin Mary, assorted saints and faraway places on the wall behind his desk.

Matt, who wears one a trademark Ben Hogan golf cap from the Thirties, readily answered questions about the typewriters parked on ceiling-high shelves. One wall is incongruously reserved for vintage RC Allen calculators.

Serene, seemingly dispassionate, Matt is matter -of-fact about the typewriters, pointing out their flaws as well as their strengths. He can address the qualities of a particular machine or make sweeping assessments about whole models and brands. He will let you know whether a model is common or rare. An Oliver #9, for instance, is common. Look for #3s, he advises. He has one and it, like several others on display, isn’t for sale but part of his 130-machine collection.

When I told him about my new typewriter adventures buying on-line, he revealed just a glimmer of distain. He allowed he had never so much as put as a finger on a computer keyboard. Matt and Dennis make no compromise with the present. They are loyal to the typewriter era, which ended three decades ago.

As I stood there with them and their machines—Remingtons, Royals, Olivettis, Underwoods, a few of which were more than a century old—I felt I was part of an episode from the Twilight Zone.

Two typewriters got my attention that first day at Ace typewriter. One was a workhorse standard Olympia. A brute of a machine, it had all the rock-solid qualities of the Olympia portables and then some. A lever advanced a sheet of paper not merely three or four lines, but half the depth of the sheet. All it took was a pull on a massive T-shaped handle on the carriage. On e-Bay the cost of shipping this behemoth would have easily been $50.

As it happened that is exactly the amount I paid Matt for it.

The other was an Olivetti Studio 44, a large portable, which would fill in a gap in my small Olivetti collection. Yes, the new collection already had gaps in need of filling.

In the coming weeks, I would spend nearly as much at Ace on repairs as on typewriters.
As I came to know Matt and Dennis, I learned about their clientele. They were collectors mostly, but also people who just couldn’t part with typewriters from their youths. Or they wanted to honor those who had handed down machines to them.

I referred many of them to Ace in the course of my typewriter wanderings.

On each visit, Matt taught me more. I really wanted to watch him at work, taking a case off a machine to get at the bone and muscle beneath the skin. But that would have been asking too much. Still, he taught me why carriages go off their tracks, sliding wildly out of control. The problem is a chipped gear tooth. I learned that a cleaning means submersing the typewriter in a cleaning solvent. Trying this at home means turning the bathtub into a typewriter-dunking vat.

I took to sharing my latest purchases with Matt, whether they needed repair or not.
On-line, I bought a 1912 Corona #3 folding portable, paying three times what I was accustomed to—$175 including shipping. It came housed in a tan leather carrying case with purple felt lining and a built-in drawer for paper.

Many machines I have bought on-line have fallen far short of my expectations or, worse, the sellers’ descriptions. Keys stick or simply don’t work. Carriages run amok. Back spaces don’t. All are candidates for Matt’s repair shop.

But the old Corona soared above my imaginings. [Note: The folding Corona is also the model featured on “The History Detectives” episode] I lauded it to Matt when I saw him to drop off another typewriter in need of repair. He insisted on seeing my purchase. But on my next visit a week later, I forgot to put the Corona in my car, perhaps subconsciously fearing Matt would find some hidden flaw.

“Where’s the Number 3?” he inquired in anticipation. I admitted I had forgotten it. As I left, his last words were: “When you come back, don’t forget the Corona.”

So I was duty-bound. A week later, I delivered the leather case and its precious contents to the shop’s counter for inspection.

Matt tested the levers and keys, peered into the workings, poked at the platen and ran his fingers over the leather case and inspected the lock mechanism.
Then he delivered his verdict.

“It’s museum quality; it really is. You just don’t see ’em as good as this…. Whatever you do, don’t sell it.”

Then he paid the Corona the ultimate compliment. He turned to the office space where Dennis was hunched over some typewriter minutia, inspecting it with his magnifying glass.
“Dad, come here. You have to see this!”

By dumb luck I had come up a winner.

It wouldn’t be the last time.

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