Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

Black and white and read all over

Several people have looked at an object lying around our house and said, “Wow we haven’t seen one of those in a long time!” Some of these guests are younger than we are, but quite a few are about our age—in their late-30s or early-40s. The object is not one of those consciously ole-timey ones, like a record player, or typewriter, or even a floppy disk. It’s something that’s part of my wife’s and my daily lives, and one we never even thought about as uncommon or outdated: the print newspaper.

For as long as we’ve lived in Southern California (nearly 10 years now), we’ve had a subscription to the print edition of the Los Angeles Times, and have no plans to change that. Reading the newspaper while we drink a cup of chai is not just a favourite part of our morning, it’s a highlight of our lives.

I’ve often idly wondered whether to write about the reaction to our newspaper—which is always one of pleasant surprise, not derision. I was prompted to finally do so when I stumbled upon an article titled “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned” by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times, March 2, 2018). It was a column in the Technology section of the paper, and—just in case you’re wondering—I read it on my phone.

The thrust of the article was that Manjoo was experimenting with getting nearly all of his news from print, staying away from the alerts, tweets, and constant screen consumption. After the requisite unpluggers’ relish about how much time is now available for pursuits like pottery, spelunking, and spaghetti-from-scratch, Manjoo found great meaning in his “analogue” news reading.

Now, neither my wife nor I are print only, but we tend to read online commentary on our own time. (She prefaces so many sentences with the same words, that a running joke at home is that she should get a t-shirt that says, “I read an article in The Atlantic…”) We don’t have phone alerts, and don’t follow Twitter or Facebook, so don’t have to deal with Manjoo’s complaint that online, you often engage with the commentary before the facts. If you get your news from Facebook, for example, the “I’m so shocked” post from a friend leads you out to the news story.

I venture that one of the reasons why news feeds are stressful, is that a thinking, civic-minded person can be, and perhaps should be, a part of the conversation. Never before have we been able to directly and immediately engage with perpetrators, victims, politicians, CEOs, and anyone making the news. We are able to insert ourselves into stories as they happen, lead conversations, and maybe even influence outcomes.

If we don’t engage, some of us look at it as a neglect of duty, like going to a town hall meeting and not speaking up, not just to push back against the voices you disagree with, but to support lone voices you agree with. In this context, simply sharing or liking a post becomes your voice—you speak out by becoming a disseminator.

And so, deciding to get your news only from print media, without a corresponding log-out from social media is an intellectual exercise with no surprises. Where the delivered newspaper really outdoes itself, is that it offers a shared ritual with other members of your house, and with screens taking up so much of our lives, any shared analogue time is community—even if it’s so local it doesn’t extend past your dining table.

First published in Gulf News, March 13, 2018

Barbie for grown men

I get guns. I really do. I don’t own any, and don’t plan to, but I find them fascinating as objects. Growing up, my brother and I had a .22 air rifle, and it was one of our favourite possessions. Once in a while I handle a friend’s handgun or go clay shooting, and I love the heft, the oily clicks, and, finally, the challenge of trying to hit what you shoot at.

But I’ve been having trouble understanding the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Supporters of this gun don’t like the common term for it because a true “assault rifle” can be switched to automatic fire (such as the M16, which is the military version of the AR-15). The claim is that an AR-15 in civilian hands is a “modern sporting rifle” and suited to hunting and home defence. In America, in civilian hands, the AR-15 has become the mass-murderer’s weapon of choice. Newtown, Aurora, Las Vegas, San Bernadino, Sutherland Springs, and now Parkland.

Because it’s out of patent, many manufacturers make guns based on the AR-15 platform. Some you have heard of: Colt or Remington. Others perhaps not: Black Rain Ordnance, whose logo is the biohazard symbol, and tagline is “Let It Rain”. Or Daniel Defense, that has a video on its website with the tagline “Manufacturing Freedom”.

As of writing, these guns can be legally modified to fire at up to 800 rounds a minute. When their high velocity rounds hit living flesh, they carry so much force they cause something called cavitation, which results in massive injuries—far worse than the size of the bullet would suggest. An AR-15 bullet does not need to hit a vital organ or an artery to cause death.

So far, I’ve had trouble grasping two notions. One, why is a gun like this available to just about anybody above 18 in America? And two, why is it so beloved? I don’t know if I’ll ever have an answer to the first question, but as soon as I read that the AR-15 is a modular platform, I had an answer to the second.

There’s powerful appeal to customisable platforms of any kind. Hobbies are simply continuously delayed gratification, and we like to think that when we pick and choose, there’s no other bicycle or car or audio system or outfit or living room or travel itinerary or, indeed, rifle, out there quite like ours. If we put enough time and effort into curation and assembly, it’s almost as if we have lit the fires and wielded the tools ourselves—that we have manufactured.

Many of the AR-15 websites I visited sell gun parts, and it seems that every bit of this rifle can be swapped to either vary its applications or fit, or indulge your aesthetic preferences, from camouflage to Star Wars. Simply the options to add a flashlight could keep you deep in Google for hours, and I have to admit, some of those tricked-out guns look very good indeed.

And so, another name for the AR-15 is “Lego for grown-ups”, and even “Barbie for men”. The tragic irony then is that this gun is a toy. Neither hunting nor target practice require you to shoot 100 bullets in under 8 seconds. Home defence is better served by a hand gun, especially considering that a bullet from an AR-15 will easily go through a couple of houses in a row.

And so, if you wonder why children are being murdered in their classrooms in a developed country that is not at war, one reason is that a bunch of grown men don’t want their game of Soldier-Soldier to end.

First published in Gulf News, February 27, 2018

A Frank, Dapper Moon Unit

The text of my review of the MOON by Simaudio 240i integrated amplifier for TONEAudio Magazine Issue 87 (February 2018), page 116.

“Oh, the volume goes in point-five increments!”

Anyone whose spouse is not a fellow audiophile will recognize the terrifying unpredictability of what will appeal and what will repulse about a new product. My household follows the gendered trope of audiophilia: the husband is the equipment nut, the wife the long-suffering innocent, but secretly nearly as emotionally invested in the gear, and blessed with far superior, and far more unbiased hearing.

After 13 years of marriage everything is subtext, so I knew it wasn’t literally the half-stop jumps of the gain display; I understood that my wife was enjoying interacting with new MOON by Simaudio product in our living room. It had passed the hardest test of all.

It’s fashionable now for high-end products to have large, clear front displays that are readable from across the room, a reversal of the self-dug branding grave of arcaneness and inaccessibility. Guess what, it works. Those big numbers on the OLED display of the 240i integrated amplifier appeal to non-enthusiasts, as well as to enthusiasts in denial about needing reading glasses. The inputs have helpful little icons as you switch, whether an image of a TOSLINK connector for Optical, or an RCA pair for Analog. Like its full-chassis siblings from Simaudio, the fascia is bookended by two chunky metal corners like biceps, with a big silver MOON logo on the smooth metal front plate. This is a product that’s ruggedly handsome without giving you the sense that its Instagram feed is full of selfies.

(The remote, though, follows that other recurring audiophile theme of being good-looking and well built, but totally unintuitive—asking you to peer at the buttons every time you use it. This first-world problem is of course the fault of television manufacturers whose remotes fall to hand so easily that you can use them blind the first time you pick one up.)

As you play with the inputs, a neat little turntable icon appears, and behold, it’s Phono! The 240i is very much a product of Today, with a phono stage, a mini-RCA front input for personal audio players, and a phalanx of digital inputs. My vinyl-only buddy shook his head and laughed in a “we’ve come full circle” manner when I told him that more and more integrated amps come with phono on board. Of no interest to him, but certainly noteworthy to me was that this product has an in-built DAC, presented with so little fanfare. It’s instructive to watch the definitions of “preamplifier” and “integrated amplifier” get blurrier as we see units that go well beyond pure line stages with some even able to stream music, wired or wirelessly.

With two optical digital inputs, two RCA S/PDIF, two USB, and an HT bypass, the 240i would be as at home in an entertainment console, as in a stripped down two-channel set up. When I first unpacked it, I connected just my Rega P3-24 turntable, a clean two-unit system happily playing vinyl, while leaving room around it to put down a laptop to play via USB. Once I located an RCA digital cable, I served the 240i a digital stream from a Naim Audio Unitiqute using Tidal Hi-Fi, Radio Paradise (this internet station plays so much at home it’s like the soundtrack to our lives), and music on my NAS which includes Red Book rips and high-resolution PCM files, up to 192-24.

The 240i’s DAC can handle a maximum of 24-bit, 192 kHz on all inputs except USB which can process up to 32-bit, 352.8 and 382 kHz. The USB input handles all the bitstream formats, DSD64, 128, and 256. There’s no streamer on board, so you can’t connect a NAS or hard disk.

As I let the system settle in, I remembered how someone in the car industry once said to me, “There are no more bad cars—just pick the one that talks to you.”

Similarly, when dealing with true audio companies such as Simaudio, founded in 1980 in Canada (where it still does all manufacturing), and run by audiophile engineers, there are no bad products. It’s really all about “who” the product is, and whether you and the unit in question can be friends.

I hope this doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise, because that’s not the intention, but the 240i is an utterly inoffensive amplifier to bring home. I suspect Simaudio must be tired of seeing the word “laidback” in reviews, but that is how it presents itself initially. After a while it’s clear that the amp is not any less detailed or fast or musical for it. It’s just that it has an ease and balance that lets it come in and find a home for itself, like the houseguest whose stories are just risque enough to be hugely entertaining, but won’t cause Grandma June to choke on her dumplings. During early listening sessions it’s tempting to plan jokes about “polite Canadians”, but on deeper acquaintance with the 240i, a reviewer can’t, in good conscience, continue with this line of thought.

And so, music with the 240i is easy to listen to, with the space, detail, and low-end depth and control expected from a high-end product, but also with the energy and propulsiveness so many of us enjoy about good hi-fi. The highs especially have a beguiling, liquid quality without being overly warm. Long-time Simaudio fans describe the brand’s sound as “lightning fast”, and it’s amazing that the 240i carries that legacy without the music sounding like it’s being rushed along a knife edge, as many “fast” entry-level electronics do. It’s the sort of system you can leave playing all day—it works beautifully in the background—and is more than capable of serving up the involvement needed for critical listening.

In a two-channel home theatre set up, I found it easy to forget about the sound, and become immersed in the action—this is good, solid work with no showboating. The source was a cheap Sony Blu-ray player, with two old Naim Intro 2 floorstanders. When I did something I haven’t done in a long time, which is pull out my storage folders and put on some CDs, I was pleasantly surprised enough to keep this set-up playing for a few evenings. It delivered enough PRaT for even older Naim fans.

For more critical listening on the main system, I’ve become used to the 170W or so my T+A Elektroakustik power amp can swing (rated very conservatively), and how well it plays with my T+A TCD 210 S loudspeakers. So while the 240i’s 50 W into 8 Ohms sounds a little light with these largish floorstanders, this “Little Integrated That Could” left me with a keen desire to listen to its bigger relatives, notably Simaudio’s power amps from its Evolution series, ideally the 860A, but more realistically, the 760A.

Having said that, I know so many people who would find the 240i more than amplifier enough. It’s for convivial living rooms that are designed for human beings first, and draped cables, audio treatments, and racks a distant tenth. I can picture exactly which friends I would unhesitatingly recommend this product to. We all have them—the music fans who would love a good system, but seem to never get round to graduating from a dock, or who keep switching their way through generations of big-brand multi-channel receivers.

I’d be especially interested to see this amp in a crowded space with a turntable, TV, gaming console, video disc player, streaming media player, laptop with USB, and occasional houseguests’ phones or portable players. This is the kind of family-room hustle the MOON seems to be designed to fit into, and then hold its own with “proper” sound. The 240i may be no-nonsense and easy to use, but you could never bestow upon it that damning audiophile adjective: “lifestyle”. The MOON by Simaudio 240i offers you the sense that instead of merely whittling away at more expensive products in the line to descend to entry level, Simaudio has made “entry level” a design goal to aspire to.

Where did non-business email go?

There’s a scene in one of the episodes of the American version of The Office, where the character Ryan is using a smart phone during a pub quiz. This isn’t allowed, but he refuses to put it down, and it has to be taken away from him. As it’s taken away, Ryan tries to sit still but he can’t. He leaves his team saying, “I can’t not have my phone, I’m sorry. I want to be with my phone.”

The episode, in Season Eight, first aired in 2012, and I must have seen it a year or two later. I still remember that when I first watched it, I felt shocked at the thought that Ryan needed his device so badly, and felt sorry for someone who’d give themselves over to it like that. I watch The Office a lot, it’s like comfort food to me, and when I watch that scene today, it looks very different. In fact, it’s shocking to watch a smart phone being taken away from someone. Even at home, it’s often hard for me to be more than a couple of feet from mine. Back in 2013, I would often leave home without my phone, happy to be disconnected for a while. Today it’s almost unthinkable—what if I get lost? What if I need to search for something? What if I’m stuck in a line somewhere and bored?

Very occasionally, I do leave the phone at home—but only when we’re going somewhere nearby and when I’m sure that my wife has hers. There is an initial tug of anxiety as I check my pockets reflexively, and feel the stretch of elastic as I leave it and drive out of the gate. But after being away from it for about 10 minutes I feel a sense of relief. It’s not that my nose is buried in it all the time when it’s there—I do remember to look up at the world, and I do often put it away in my pocket and just sit and be me, but it isn’t long before it’s out again… hey just to check the time…

With the internet always on call and at hand, sometimes it’s startling for me to realise we already have a technological history here. I’m not just thinking about dial-up modems, but the fact that there’d be one computer in the house that everyone needed to use to check email or look things up on a search engine. That instead of giving your guests a wi-fi password, you’d show them to the messy desk where your computer was, and you’d have to negotiate keyboard time with everybody at home.

And though our screen time was precious and rationed, we all wrote each other long emails, sharing our thoughts and doings. Where did email go? I used to write to so many people, some of them several times a week. This number dwindled sharply, and then steadily, until it was down to two, and now it’s none.

While the arrival of email made some of us bemoan the loss of the analogue and personal touch of letter-writing, the underlying concept was unchanged. We still had the buffer of time let us gather thoughts, find depth, and toss the filler. It seems like we just don’t have the time any more for that, but surely that can’t be true? I think it’s my turn to write to the last of my emailing friends, but not only am I not finding time to write it, I’m also loath to load him with the guilt of having to reply.

First published in Gulf News, February 13, 2018

Who needs a modernised typewriter?

A few years ago my mother sent me a link to a product called the Hemingwrite. It was a distraction-free word processor, or if you like, a modernised typewriter. It had a small screen, a high-quality keyboard, solid aluminium casework, and could do little else beyond accept your words with a series of satisfying clicks from those tactile Cherry keys, and send them via wifi to the cloud. There was no browser, no apps, and it didn’t even have arrow keys. I was fascinated.

I kept a close eye on it through its Kickstarter campaign, its agonising lead up to production, through its rebranding to the Astrohaus Freewrite, right on through to unboxing videos and other reviews online.

While I enjoy reading about technology and playing with it at friend’s homes, I’m not an early adopter. I prefer to hang back through the breakages, fires, maimings, and explosions before I commit (not that the Freewrite went though any of those new-product rites of passage). Also holding me back was the $500 price tag—it was a lot of money for one-use product in the days of your screens offering five senses and the world. And finally, I didn’t think the Freewrite suited to writing articles, so didn’t want to buy one until I was sure I had a longer story to tell.

“The $500 Freewrite word processor is pretentious hipster nonsense,” went the headline of an article on Mashable.com (Christina Warren and Karissa Bell, Feb 24, 2016). It was a brutal takedown of the product—neither author understood why anyone would want one when there were so many free distraction-free apps out there, and that it cost the same as a good tablet, but weighed four times as much.

I heard them. I still wanted one. I knew there was something in the weight of this overengineered, under-featured product that would appeal to me in a way that the authors’ suggestion of getting an iPad Air 2, a keyboard, and a distraction-free writing app just wouldn’t.

Perhaps the most controversial feature, or non-feature, of the Freewrite is its lack of editing capability. Many users say it should at least have arrow keys—even if only to go up a couple of sentences and correct typos. I was inclined to agree, especially when writing a shorter article of 600 or 1,200 words, rather than getting through the 100,000 words of a novel.

But as I write the first draft of this very article on the Freewrite, I realise there’s power in that constant forward momentum. Wanting to immediately correct errors is pure ego for me, and it’s an act of rebellion to let those typos sit there until the second draft, like dirty dishes left overnight in the sink. As I plough on, if a paragraph doesn’t work, I leave it in place, and simply start it again. I don’t tweak or tinker, I just move on, filling empty space.

When you roll a sheet of paper into a typewriter and press down on a key, you’re taking an object in this world and forever changing it. There is no easy way to go back from those hammered impressions, and the Freewrite has a sense of this heft and inevitability. You don’t sit down at one of these machines unless you mean it. Conversely, sitting down at one of these machines requires you to mean it.

Does that sound like more “pretentious hipster nonsense”? I’ll know for sure in six months when either my Freewrite is in constant use, or buried in the same dusty drawer as my fountain pen with green ink.

First published in Gulf News, January 30, 2018

The art of the two-person monologue

After a long break from social media (essentially Facebook) I’m back, but on Instagram. The photo sharing site feels more manageable than Facebook, though a few of my interactions give me unpleasant flashbacks.

Let’s take Thomas. On social media (and on the phone and in person) Thomas has a clever-clever response to everything. It annoyed me until I realised, this is what I used to do, and still do if I don’t catch myself: wander around people’s status updates or threads, and leave clever comments, sometimes nothing more. What this does, in effect, is make the other person’s story about me. When other social-media users see my comment and like it, or respond “Good one!”, the original user’s story has been co-opted.

This is a form of “narcissistic conversation”, and my desire to shame Thomas for it, was to avoid the shame I felt for having done that very thing to so many people. Narcissistic conversation has been a big part of my last year. I’m more attuned to it because on the larger arena, we’re listening to each other so much better (recognising voices of minorities and the less privileged), and at the same time reacting so strongly to events and ideas, that we’re barely listening to anybody about anything.

On the smaller arena, bad listening has always been a problem, but it seems to be getting worse. As I look over my interactions of 2017, I see how some people never ever ask about my life, not even after I solicit, and they joyfully share, details of theirs. Others ask, but seem almost pained as I speak, switching the story back to themselves at the first breath I draw. One person has the habit of interjecting with a machine-gun-like “yup yup yup yup” that makes me cut myself short because I feel as if I’m taking up his precious time with my banalities.

Even when bad listeners pause long enough to hear you, there are elaborate rituals to invalidate you. It’s a common ploy to lie in wait to criticise your choices or recommendations, whether a film, city, restaurant, lifestyle, or opinion. This doesn’t mean everyone should love everything you do, but it’s easy to spot the difference between genuine disagreement with an understanding of your context, and an insecure person hitting back at you with glee, because they feel diminished when they don’t know everything.

The character George in Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? described a “declension” that perfectly sums up the norm of conversation as competition: “Good, better, best, bested.” The word he used, declension, means both the variation of form of nouns or adjectives, and a moral deterioration. When conversation becomes competition, we lessen our world.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be messy–if you can’t make mistakes and cross lines with your friends, then what use friendship? I have allowed many people months of messiness, during which I felt deeply unheard, and sometimes put down or hit out at. When it gets too much, I am often messy myself in how I set my boundaries. But people with low awareness of their narcissicism, do not take kindly to boundary setting whether neat or messy, and they will drop you.

Luckily, you can test for narcissistic conversation long before being shut out. After you talk to a person, do you feel happy and energised, or drained and disregarded? If it’s the latter, is being dropped by them such a bad thing? Protecting yourself from narcissicism is empowering, but never forget to keep a close watch on the most cunning and insiduous narcissist of all—the one inside.

First published in Gulf News, January 16, 2018

Don’t run over anyone in 2018

The sound a car makes when it crashes into a human being is a loud bang—making you think at first it’s a car-on-car collision—but with an edge of meaty wetness that makes you realise something is very very wrong.

There was a musician outside the Target that that evening, as I waited with our dogs for my wife to run in and buy something. A tall man went past me, looking down at the ground and muttering loudly to himself, stepping as if he was randomly selecting the point in front of him to put his foot down. He was covered in carabiners, loops, buckles, and straps, in filthy clothes and with greasy hair, suggesting he was one of the many schizophrenic homeless people of Los Angeles County.

I was watching the musician when I heard the tyres screech, and then that awful sound. My eyes darted to the road behind, where I could see the crosswalk between two bushes. A black car went by with what looked like a piece falling off it. It was a person, being flung into the air just like they are in the movies, to land with a thump nearly ten feet from the crosswalk.

The musician dropped his guitar and sprinted right up to the victim, kneeling and cradling the man’s bleeding head in his arms. At some point he ripped off his own shirt to help stanch the flow. Meanwhile, I dialled those fateful, storied three digits: 9-1-1. As I walked over, I recognised the pants and straps, as the homeless man’s legs started to flail, either in agony or a seizure.

Now while the poor upset young driver probably wasn’t at fault (it’s likely the homeless man simply stepped onto the road), a road culture heavily skewed to favour cars helped cause this crash. There is a high-speed state highway at a choke point that features a downtown shopping district, a Metro station and three-track level crossing, a bus stop, a pedestrian crosswalk outside a busy department store, the entrance to the store car park just beyond that, and no shoulder at all.

Sadly I don’t have the space now to segue into the story of why this man, and nearly 58,000 others like him, is homeless in the richest state of one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s only in the last few years in America that I’ve met so many people at the opposite end of the political and ideological spectrum from me. People who will assert that while the accident is sad, the man is only out there because he chose not to avail of the opportunity to live the American Dream that is supposedly given to everybody in this country. And that while cars can be unsafe, if they boost the economy, it’s fine to give over our cities, woods, fields, and dreams to tarmac, parking lots, and a life where you’re in constant physical danger as you walk and drive from work and play.

The more I encounter this selfish, utterly unimaginative way of looking at the world, the more it makes me sad rather than angry. In the end though, whether you look at that accident as no more than two objects attempting to occupy the same space at the same time, or whether you see the story of capitalism and America, I want you to carry the echo of that sound in your head (remember what I said: a loud bang with a wet, meaty edge), and drive your self-propelled metal missile with more care, compassion, and awareness in 2018.

First published in Gulf News, January 2, 2018

When desert winds blow

You’ve no doubt seen the news about the terrible fires in Southern California, some of them still burning. The Thomas fire is on its way to destroying 300,000 acres. As you may have read, they have been fuelled by a bad bout of the Santa Ana winds, a Southern California weather phenomenon that isn’t talked about much in the rafts of popular culture set in Los Angeles.

An author famous for alluding to these winds is Raymond Chandler, considered the founder of “hard-boiled” detective fiction. Forgive me if you’re a reader from Los Angeles where it is quite the cliché to remember Chandler when the desert winds blow. If you’re not, look up the opening lines of his story “Red Wind”. They sum up the dusty edginess of those evenings when the gusts over the mountains suddenly raise the temperature of cold evenings, and drop the humidity to the low teens, and even single digits. My favourite part is: “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

I’ve noticed that I often feel feverish when the winds are blowing, and read recently they are known to carry a spore that causes flu-like symptoms in about 40 per cent of the population. Even if you don’t feel ill, humidity that low is exceedingly uncomfortable. It’s hard to breathe, hard to sleep, and your skin turns ashy. The other evening, I rode my bike to the grocery store during a Santa Ana event. I usually wear gloves, but didn’t that day. After an hour of riding, my knuckles and the tops of my hands got so dry, the skin became rough and itchy for several days after.

It’s because of the Santa Anas, the gusts of which can exceed 120 km/h, that people spend a lot of money trimming their trees every couple of years, opening up dense canopies to let the wind pass through easily. A few days after spending a small fortune on trimming our largest trees, I found a large yellow mushroom on the trunk of an old eucalyptus tree on the edge of our property. It was both the size and shape of a human brain. Apparently it was a sign of wood rot, and the tree had to come down. A few weeks later, I found another large mushroom (the size and shape of a large hand fan) at the base of a eucalyptus that towered over our house. To our dismay, we needed to cut down this century old giant, one that would smash our house and land right on our bed, should it fall over.

The tree trimmer was about 80 feet up the tree the first day of the three-day process of removal, and was figuring out how to loop a rope around a large branch, when the Santa Anas hit. The evening went nearly instantly from not a leaf moving to the wind hissing violently through the nearby palm trees. He had to literally hold on for dear life, and then descend quickly between gusts, as the winds picked up again for the evening. “I feared for my life,” he said in Spanish after he was finally off the tree.

The Santa Anas don’t blow through very often in the year, but when they do, their effects are often terrifying. Considering that everything about LA is dramatised and iconified—from its roads and freeways to its palm trees to its proximity to an earthquake fault—I’m amazed there isn’t a TV drama or movie set during a Santa Ana event, especially as they’re colloquially known as the Devil Winds.

First published in Gulf News, December 19, 2017

Hydraulically raising low art to high art

One recent morning, as we drove past the local tyre shop here in Azusa, California, we saw the entire road outside taken up with immaculate chrome, bright paint, and vintage and classic car body shapes.

It was a “lowrider” festival, and we stopped to marvel at some of the most beautiful 1950s, 60s, and 70s cars we’ve ever seen. Some were visually stripped down to a liquid one-colour paint, but many were ornate beyond wildest dreams—whether with detailed bonnet paintings or silken upholstery or hub caps that would work on a chariot in Ben Hur.

Without context, a lowrider is a puzzling invention. Why would a grown man or woman want a car with tiny wheels that lifts and bounces on hydraulic suspension?

Lowriding was born in East Los Angeles, in the heavily Latino, or specifically, Chicano section of the city. (A Latino could be from any of the Latin American countries, but a Chicano is an American of specifically Mexican descent.)

As car enthusiasts in the 1950s focussed on speed, the lowriders picked a “low and slow” approach. Early automobiles sat high, so lowering or “slamming” cars has long been an enthusiast staple, both for looks, and improved aerodynamics and handling. Lowriders take that to such an extreme that they are intentionally good only for cruising slowly down boulevards.

Cars dropped that low are illegal, and can’t get over large irregularities, so that’s when hydraulic suspensions came in, to allow the cars to be raised on the go for both police inspections and speed bumps. But why go from there to independent hydraulics for each wheel, and bouncing car competitions?

Bob Frost in The History Channel Magazine, 2002, wrote that lowriders with hydraulics were intended to be both cool and playful, and a good example of rasquachismo, a Chicano make-do sensibility that’s often “witty, irreverent, and impertinent”.

As Los Angeles and the rest of America fell in love with the car, and the magic of driving cross-country at high speeds, the Chicanos of East LA subverted that. Cars became mobile hang-out spaces for friends and family. Lowriders offered journeys out of ghettoised neighbourhoods without invisibility. If the journey from A to B is made slowly and in style, then the lowrider’s occupants own all the points between A and B. Lowrider give you reason to be anywhere, because it’s a reason in itself.

You can see why this would be favored by gangs, and most of LA’s lowriders have to fight the assumption that they are gang members or otherwise violent. Lowriding is about community and family, and you could see this at the festival. I watched one of the many fascinated little boys hold his phone high over an open bonnet so he could get a picture to let him see the engine inside.

My wife and I were clearly outsiders, and we got a sense of guardedness from the participants. It was never hostile, we simply felt invisible after the first appraising, often challenging, glance. The joke inherent in lowriding is clearly meant only for insiders. But not for long.

Cars were first physically depersonalised by design that favoured aerodynamics and safety. Now, and in the near future, they will be conceptually depersonalised by ride-sharing and autonomous driving. Cars are turning more and more into infrastructure, to be no more different from each other than the streetlamp poles from one city to another. Imagine in this robot-car world, an elaborately painted and chromed 1950s American automobile with hydraulic suspension that lets it drive heavily canted on three wheels down a street. That’s soon going to be high art.

First published in Gulf News, December 5, 2017

Honesty is the best police?

When I was in junior school, we’d be assigned “cursive writing” practice. The exercise books had short sentences printed in a flowing font, with sets of blank lines below, like a music staff. We’d have to trace the sentences out four or five times in our “neatest handwriting”. We’d sit on long afternoons, a room full of imprisoned medieval scribes, scratching at our books, and risking punishment by alleviating the boredom with furtive conversations.

I remember one of those sentences: “Honesty is the best policy”. I read it out to my neighbour Vijay, thinking it was pronounced “police-y”. As boys do at that age, he crowed at me as he corrected my pronunciation. Though I strongly suspected he was right, I insisted my version was correct. As boys do at that age.

Cut to a few years later in a high-school ethics class where I was introduced to white lies as a concept. “What would you do,” our teacher asked, “if you went to someone’s house for dinner, and you didn’t like the food. When they asked you if you liked it, what would you say?”

And so, as you grow older, you hunt for your landing spot on the emotional honesty spectrum. You probably test limits, investigating the shades between frankness and obnoxiousness on one end, and politeness and hypocrisy on the other. A huge part of where you eventually land probably depends on the environment in which you practice your personal honesty. Many of us are forced to a place on the spectrum we’re not comfortable.

We all tell socially sanctioned lies to spare other people’s feelings. Some of us tell too little, and are called difficult. Some of us tell too much, and are called insincere. Some of us naturally want to tell more truths than lies, but grow up in environments where such honesty is punished by people who get upset or angry when they are questioned or challenged. And so we learn to agree even when we disagree. To say, “I’m okay with anything” even though we have a preference. To say we like something even when we don’t, and even when saying we like it means we get more of it.

All those little white lies add up to a grevious dishonesty to oneself. All those feelings that were spared, are a thousand cuts to your own psyche. This is why people-pleasers are often thought to have unpredictable bad tempers. They build up resentment with no outside clues, and while you think they snapped for the tiniest little thing, they see a whole line of tiny things. Half or more of their anger is at themselves for not setting the boundary in the first place.

But here’s an interesting view of this situation. When you don’t stand up to people, and when you don’t hold them accountable for their views or behaviours, you diminish them. Imagine you love a restaurant for its food and gracious service and go there all the time. Then one day, the service is bad enough to ruin your evening. As a people pleaser, you might tell yourself, “Maybe it’s an off day. I won’t say anything.”

Fair enough. But what if the service is bad the next time, and the next? What would make you go back again and again, and not say anything?

We’re told from a very young age that honesty is a good and desirable trait. Then we learn that honesty is far more complex than “don’t steal and don’t lie”. And today, 35 years after that cursive-writing class, I still don’t understand the rules, and still don’t know where to land on that emotional honesty spectrum.

First published in Gulf News, November 7, 2017