Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Best of Times

I bought an iMic Griffin off Ebay the other day. As I was leaving the apartment this morning I passed the Postlieferin on the stairs; she had a package for me; it was my iMic Griffin! The first thrill was soon alloyed with exasperation and nostalgia.

An iMic Griffin is a device that enables you to transfer recordings on vinyl or cassette to a Mac or PC -- they can then be saved in iTunes or burned to CD. I have quite a lot of audiotapes of Arabic books I would be likelier to listen to if they were not on cassettes; I have a recording of Eliot reading selected poems on cassette, I have a Radioscopie interview of Barthes by Jacques Chancel; I've been wanting to do something about this for years. And now here is the iMic.

There's one slight problem, which is that to connect a turntable or cassette player to the iMic you need a cable. Not only is this not included, there's nothing in either the documentation or the online support to tell the technically retarded buyer what sort of cable is required.

FAQ: How Do I Record From LPs Onto My PC in Plain English?

A: First connect your device (let's say it's a turntable) to the input of the iMic.

Once connected to the "IN" on the iMic, you will flip the switch on the iMic to "line" if you're using a line-out of your receiver (that would be the red and white RCA type connectors) or "mic" if you're using the output of the turntable. Plug the iMic into a USB port on your computer. "Mic" mode engages the iMic's internal preamp, which you'll probably need to boost the signal of the turntable.

And much much more, but the Q, And just how to I connect my device to the input of the iMic, whether in Plain English, Fancy English or Swahili? while undoubtedly FA, is nowhere to be seen. This is a job for the Automathilfe -- except there IS no Automathilfe. I go to Conrad's with my iMic and cassette player, explain that I need a cable to connect them, am shown a cable with two male plugs, and all is well. (I write having transferred Side C of Munther A. Younes' Tales from Kalila wa Dimna, Yale University Press 1998, to iTunes. It can be done.)

My guess is that quite a lot of people using turntables would know the sort of input cable they needed without being told -- but the sort of person who needs everything explained in Plain English is likely to need more handholding. The sort of person who has cassettes, anyway, can probably remember the days when electrically powered windows in cars were exciting. (When Jonathan Lethem interviewed Paul Auster for The Believer he asked how much technology one should mention in fiction, and Auster thought it was stretching a point to include mobile phones. My guess is that Auster doesn't have Naguib Mahfouz's Khan al-Kalily on cassette and is not kicking himself for not having made better progress and so is not asking himself whether getting Mahfouz into iTunes would make a difference, but if he did no one could say that Griffin Technology was meeting him halfway.)

The reason this made me nostalgic, anyway, is that it reminded me of my first year at Oxford. I went up to Oxford to read Literae Humaniores in 1979. Britain has a higher voltage than the US (230V rather than 120), which means it is possible to heat water quickly in an electric kettle; one of the first things any undergraduate does on going to university is buy an electric kettle. So I went into the Woolworth's in Cornmarket, bought an electric kettle, took it back to my college and took it out of the box -- only to find a cord ending in three wires where an American expects to find a plug.

Yes. In Britain, in those far-off days, electrical appliances could not be sold with a prefitted plug. The buyer had to buy the plug separately (making sure it had the right number of amps). The buyer ALSO had to buy a tiny screwdriver. The back of the plug had to be unscrewed, tiny screws inside had to be loosened, coloured wires threaded under the appropriate screws, the screws retightened, the back of the plug screwed back on, and an hour or so later the novice electrician was either sitting down to a nice hot cup of ground cockroach or frying on the floor. It's said that electrical fires were a common source of death.

Once you got the electric kettle up and running, of course, you appreciated it in a way that you wouldn't if you hadn't had to work for it. On the one hand, just switching it on was a source of pride; on the other hand, you always wondered if it was about to blow up. You didn't take it for granted; just drinking instant coffee, prepared with a kettle with owner-installed plug, put you one up on all the pampered American consumers at Harvard and Yale. Not ONLY were you in a place where you would read the whole of Homer in Greek, the whole of Virgil in Latin, but you could ALSO do electrical wiring! Self-taught! And you were in a strange, quaint country whose entire population, you suddenly realised, was an inexhaustible market for tiny screwdrivers. (You saw at once, of course, that the tiny screwdriver was destined to be lost; a British household with an assortment of lamps, kettles, radios and so on probably had at least 5 tiny screwdrivers on the premises. The average American household had none.)

Well, the British market for tiny screwdrivers has gone through the floor, because you can now buy a Rowenta kettle in the iMac palette with the plug unimaginatively attached to the end of the cord. Accidents arising from classicists absentmindedly threading the earth wire through the wrong hole are pretty much a thing of the past. So, unfortunately, is the quaint oldfashioned spectacle of classics undergraduates reading the whole of Homer and Virgil.

Blair is out, Brown is in. He's said to be keen on education. Not so keen, I'll bet, as to restore the full maintenance grant which was phased out by Thatcher, Major and Blair and replaced with student loans and top-up fees.

Years later, when I'd been in the country for years and had a B.A., a D.Phil. and about 20 tiny screwdrivers to show for it, one of my graduate supervisors talked about a sabbatical he'd taken at Stanford. Russell said the graduate students spent their first two years doing the sort of thing we did in the first half of the undergraduate course: reading their way through very large numbers of texts. The Oxford system depended on a method of student funding that enabled students to spend vacations on an ambitious programme of independent reading; once the funding was gone, once vacation jobs were the norm and the syllabus was cut down to what could be covered in term, the thing that had made it worth studying in the Land of the Tiny Screwdriver disappeared.

The iMic Griffin does not have the glamour of Proust's madeleine, but it did bring lost time briefly back. The mood is not good.

Looking on the bright side, I can now transfer my cassette of Barthes interviewed by Jacques Chancel to iTunes. (I know it's here somewhere.)


Languagehat said...

In Britain, in those far-off days, electrical appliances could not be sold with a prefitted plug. The buyer had to buy the plug separately (making sure it had the right number of amps)...

Great heavens! Was there some rationalization, however thin, for this, or was it simply the Way Things Had Always Been Done?

Andrew Brown said...

It was, I remember, the way things had always been done, since as recently thirty or forty years ago, they had not standardised on wall sockets -- there were three pin round ones and three pin square ones.

Also, if you came up to Oxford, you very probably did so at boarding school where _everyone_ learned to wire their record players into the wall with a couple of matchsticks wedging the bare wires in place.

Helen DeWitt said...

I like the non-standardised plug explanation -- except that I don't remember more than one sort of plug (the three-pin square ones) being sold. What I was told at the time was that this was the result of the stranglehold of the unions on British manufacturing.

Unknown said...

sounds like the iMicgriffen could have been a iMcGuffin - it really is 'shocking' to not come with a cable

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

my father always spoke of the English fear of electocution, but neither he nor anyone else really knew why... gracias for the clarification.
Working a bit for one#s appliances is indeed satisfying. In our fixer-upper apartment I have already learned how to install lights -amazing in the age of everything does everything automatically, really.