Monday, March 28, 2005

A little news from Boston:

One of our prized urban icons is a 1960s-era, massive neon billboard, which looks out over the Charles River and Fenway Park. It advertises a company that no longer really exists (Citgo was bought out by the Venezuelan state oil company long ago), but when the owners tried to take it down, there was a public outcry which actually got the thing landmark status.

Nevertheless, it is a machine, and machines must needs be repaired, and sometimes, dare I say it, replaced. So it is with the sign, which had withstood several hurricanes, but was still, as of last fall, in pretty bad shape. (That also allowed for an upgrade; the new version uses LEDs instead of neon, and consumes a fraction of the power).

But this, in turn, created a problem: what to do about the broken tubes. There were some broken neon tubes in the sign, which many had grown used to, just as they had grown to cherish the sign itself, which might have been considered an eyesore somewhere else. And so the owners of the sign assured the public that the new sign would be able to emulate the behavior of the old -- right down to the tubes that did not light.

So it was, and so it wasn't. "Broken tubes mode" is quite real -- I saw them testing it while the new sign was going up. But it wasn't enabled after the new sign's dedication (a solemn event, attended by the mayor). Instead, all the tubes seemed to work.

Were the fans of broken signs betrayed? No! About a week after the new sign was dedicated, one of the new LED segments broke. It is now stuck on. And this doesn't seem to be a programmed effect, either -- late at night, when the rest of the sign is turned off, this one red segment is still lit. More faithful to the spirit of the old display than a mere imitation could ever be, it appears to be genuinely broken.

The glory of the world passes daily. The most basic traditions of the American Republic are under attack, from commitment to treaties (the Geneva conventions) to the rule of law itself (with Congress attempting to establish separate legal rules that apply to Michael and Terri Schiavo and no one else). But for the moment at least, in one corner of Boston, all is right with the world.


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