Thursday, June 23, 2011

Felix the Cat and the Mimeograph Machine

I do have a fuzzy recollection of those days when, as a young man, I would fall into bed, exhausted from the day, and find myself instantly asleep. Clearer are the memories of days of seeming unremitting stress as I struggled to pull my life into some semblance of, first, harmony, and then later, health.  Those days presaged whirligig nights of blanket fights that raged from dusk ‘til dawn. I awoke as exhausted as before the bout.  Thankfully, it has become better in these calmer years. Better, yes, but sometimes really weird.

I no longer retire with much expectation of sleep.  If it comes it comes, I can take it or leave it.  Night is, far more predictably, a time for meditation and the freedom to engage in conversation with someone who completely shares my interests and perspective.  I refer, naturally, with no slight intended to my dear wife, to myself.

It grows increasingly clear as I bumble through my 60s that enlightenment is a personal journey.  The only commonality we share with others on the trip is the ever-receding horizon.  As a result, the person closest to our heart is not the one who chatters along about plans for tomorrow or next week.  It is instead the one most tolerant of our inclination to stare dreamily into space, going where "no man has gone before," and where we all must travel alone.  I refer, of course, to our morning mirror buddy, ourselves.  If we happen to live with someone who not only tolerates us, but genuinely cares for us - that is truly wonderful. 

All of which is, of course, unnecessary prologue to the strange perceptual experience I had the other night.  I say "perceptual experience" because the line between a waking meditative reverie and a sleeping dream has become thin enough to ignore.  The “experience” had to do with Felix the Cat and a mimeograph machine.  In a scene reminiscent of Fantasia, an endless stream of Felix the Cat models spewed out of a mimeograph machine and marched downstairs, in search no doubt of the excellent scallop and garlic pasta dish Christine had made for dinner. I would awake, toss and turn, go back to sleep and Felix would march on.  The connection between Felix and the mimeograph may not be immediately obvious, but it does make sense.

Those who do not study the media may be unaware that Felix the Cat was the very first TV star.  In 1928 the experimental TV station in New York W2XBS needed a moving image to calibrate their primitive cameras. They put a 13-inch tall papier-mâché model of Felix, a current print and film star, on a record turntable and spun him around.  And there he sat for 2 hours a day for almost a decade, transfixing the handful of employees and engineers who could receive the gradually improving image on a fuzzy, black and white two-inch screen.

During that same era the stencil printing, or mimeograph, machine was gaining some popularity in business offices around the country.  My memories of that particular piece of technology spring from my first teaching jobs in the early 1970s.  I recall being particularly entranced with the first electric mimeograph machines where the hand crank was replaced by an electric motor that allowed the copies to spill from the machine at seemingly blinding speed.

The implications for the Internet may not be immediately obvious – still they are there.  You see, the most amazing thing about Felix spinning around in front of the primordial TV camera and the pages marching out of the mimeograph machine, like brooms under Mickey's spell, was the technology that produced them.  Felix transfixed us because of how he got to that tiny little screen - pictures through the air - awesome.  Same for the mimeograph machine.  Dozens of copies at the flip of a switch - hundreds if you wanted them.  OK, so you couldn't read the last few dozen, but look how many there are!!

We are currently entranced with the incredibly cool ways that the Internet gets stuff before our i-s. That's not a typo, I mean our iPhones, our iPads, our iPods and all the other iLike things that we stuff into our pockets.  Mr. Jobs sure got that one right - as did the guys in the Googleplex and the kid over at Facebook.  We are in love with seeing things on screens - we are in love with the technology that the Internet mainlines into our lives. The content? Well, that's lagging a bit behind. Angry Birds?  Come on now.

It has often been thus with new forms of technology.  Mature content flourishes in mature technology.  In mature technology the issue is not "What can I do?"  The concern is "what can I say?" In mature communication media content dominates; combining nuance, depth and subtlety in pursuit of conceptual clarity is a primary concern. 

In new technologies the fascination is with "What can I do?" Make pictures move, stuff Morse code into a wire, send print, speech and moving images through the air.  Look what we can DO! Isn't that cool?

  The disparity between “do” and “say” usually sorts itself out.  Eventually the "Wow cool, look what I can do!" fascination fades and the subtlety of insightful content creation resurfaces - often more vibrant than before.  It is then that new art forms evolve, communication becomes increasingly nuanced.

  However, it strikes me that the unprecedented speed at which new layers of communication media are evolving is warping that traditional process.  Content struggles to keep up with capacity - hence messages struggle to gain maturity:

"Look, I can point my phone at the bar code next to that coat in the window and click this little thingy and - since I put my size and address info onto the store's website - I can buy it right now, at 3:00 in the morning!!"

"Do you want the coat?"

"No, not really, but how cool is that app!?"

See what I mean?  I'm not saying that there isn't worthwhile content out there in cyberspace. There is. However, at this point in time, increasingly the tail wags the dog. Actually the tail is wagging the puppy.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

To Hashtag or #To Hashtag

I just read an article about the extent to which the “hashtag”, the symbol formerly known as the “number sign” or the “pound key” - “#”, has made it's way out of Twitter into the language at large.  The rather long NY Times article asserts that the symbol has come to indicate a sort of ironic separation from the content following the #.  I admit to not completely understanding - as I don't tweet.  But apparently a # inserted before the content seems to have much the same linguistic function as "not" inserted behind the content.  So, "#I completely agree" and "I completely agree . . . Not!" would be roughly equivalent statements.

In the interest of full disclosure I must admit to a personal history of symbolic manipulation.  It was probably sometime after 5th and 6th grade spent in Vienna, Austria, when I first encountered exotic symbol systems, but before college, when the odds of being outed as a poser would have been far greater. I used to take notes in class in fluid nonsense symbols.  I would cover pages with intricate symbols - sometimes starting from the left, sometimes from the right.  It was great fun.  I would even cross out and make corrections.  I think, perhaps, it was somehow tied up with masking ignorance as secret knowledge.  And that, it seems, is a characteristic shared with the #.  The symbol, the article implies, carries the flavor of shared, but assertive, indecision.  A declaration of "I may not know what I'm talking about - but here is what I think anyhow!" It is a phase we all go through, and perhaps there is something hopeful in a generation with the courage to symbolically acknowledge, no matter how obliquely, their indecision or uncertainty.

Still, it worries me that there seems to be an increasingly positive connotation attached to imprecise expression.  As I grow older, and more aware of how little of existence I understand, I try to express those few insights as clearly as possible.  But perhaps there is an inverse linguistic relationship at play; as maturity seeks clarity, youth masks uncertainty with oblique prose.

A couple of examples, from opposite ends of the "complexity continuum."  I mentioned several posts ago that I recently re-read The Great Gatsby.  Although he had already written two previous novels, Fitzgerald was just turning 30 when he wrote Gatsby, and, had he not died so young, we would consider Gatsby one of his "early works."  The point is that the prose is lovely, but the novel winds down to a whimpering "nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go eat worms" concept.  Youthful uncertainty wrapped in beautiful, complex, oblique prose.

Texting holds down the other end of the spectrum, well, more Twitter than texting. There are increasingly sophisticated speech-to-text software programs out there that by-pass tiny little keyboards to allow for less painful forays into texting. Some of them even get around the 160-character limits of SMS.  Still, Twitter, increasingly the short-message platform of preference, for the nonce restricts messages to 140 characters.  A restriction that, regular readers of my posts realize, might cause me to fling myself in front of a bus.

Still, younger writers seem to love it - because, I would argue, the enforced brevity lends itself to a sort of protective ambiguity. Doesn't demand it, mind you, but inclines one in that direction.  Take for example, from another iconic platform of the young, Facebook, the relationship-status descriptor "It's complicated."  What a superb example of terse ambiguity.  It says nothing specific, but implies a world of possibilities.  But a word of caution; the lack of precision does not always spin out in the protective way the author might intend. Two succinct phrases, one verifiable, the other probably mythic, serve as excellent examples of terse ambiguity gone awry:  "I am not a crook!" and "Let them eat cake!"  Neither leader spoke the phrase in an attempt to end a career.  However, the intent of the speaker notwithstanding, the audiences apparently heard, "#I am not a crook!" and "#Let them eat cake!"

Did I do that right? #It will break my heart if I can't figure out how to use the #.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Fascination of the Small

The southern summer has settled in with a vengeance, spawning tornadoes that swept northward like latter-day Jeb Stuarts taking the war to the Yankees.  The thermometer puts up numbers of which students only dream, and you can soak a shirt walking out to get the mail.   All in all, it seemed a strange time to take my camera for a stroll.  But Christine has been gone for awhile, up in the Second City doing “Aunt Chris” duty, and I have succumbed to cabin fever.  So I made it a two-stop day.  First, I walked a short loop over by Lake Crabtree, then the “Investigator” path through the meadow and woods adjoining the North Carolina Museum of Art. 

The lake trail was peacefully deserted, save for a few other mad dogs and Englishmen jogging and biking the perimeter.  There is a calming silence to heat.  It would be oppressive indoors, but out here it seems a filter – nothing expends energy on unnecessary sound.  All that remains is important and worthy of our efforts to listen.  The smell of pine and honeysuckle steep together nicely in the quiet; trumpet vines and mimosas splash pink and scarlet among shade upon shade of green and brown. Several times I raised the camera to frame a shot, only to let it fall.  I began to realize that, today at least, simply pausing and watching would suffice.  More and more these days, when I take a photo it has a way of sinking into the voracious, multi-layered and cross-indexed “Pictures” file, never to be seen again.  Better to gaze, to breathe, and to listen.

Coming around a bend, I chanced upon a biker in full Lance Armstrong regalia; Area 51 styled helmet, spandex this and wicking that, all held together with Velcro and clever clips.  His stylish steed rested lightly against him as he fiddled with ear buds looping down to something small and digital.  I nodded, but he seemed oblivious to my awesome walking staff and raffish fedora.  A yard or two past him a flashy bluebird perched above a spectacular thicket of poison ivy draped with honeysuckle. I stopped and peeked through my viewfinder.  Damn near dropped the camera as a huge heron exploded from an eddy just behind her tiny blue buddy.  She screamed, and beat her way into the air.  I turned to see if Lance, too, had avoided a coronary, only to find him head down, staring intently at his digital doodad, thumbs flying.  It struck me that had we invented cellphones first, we would never have tamed fire – the saber-tooth tigers and cave bears would have been picking us off like jellybeans as we texted our way to extinction.

The path embracing the art museum was more populated, but still not crowded.  The large sculptures scattered across the landscape lay baking in the sun, pieces pulled from some gigantic kiln, cooling under Carolina blue.  Dogs, which had no doubt started the day straining the leash, now toiled up slight inclines, tongues panted to full extend.  Parents pushed, pulled and carried children among ponds and plantings perhaps a tad too obviously designed to tempt modern-day Monets.  Still, I caved, and took a couple of shots as background for a new set of images I am drawing.

I suppose it was the sleepy little ones being toted through the lush landscape that took me back to the first serialized fiction I can remember reading, Thorton Burgess’s Old Mother West Wind stories.  Burgess, a naturalist and author from Massachusetts, penned the tales over a stretch of almost 50 years, starting in 1910.  I first encountered Little Joe Otter, Spotty the Turtle, Billy Mink, Peter Cottontail, et al., in 1954, when I was still several months shy of my sixth birthday.  My father had taken a summer teaching position in California, and our rented home was not far from the local library.  My mother used books the way modern moms use DVD players, and so we read the summer away.

I am struck by the differences between then and now, between those stories and today’s.  The Mother West Wind tales made the small large – they created an entire world in a meadow or along a stretch of riverbank.  It is a characteristic shared with Kenneth Grahame’s British classic, Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, and Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, from 1926. These works all appear to have their roots in a close observation of nature writ small.  I envision Burgess, Grahame and Milne, children when the 19th century turned 20, forced to go outside and play without things plastic or electric. They were, no doubt, initially bored.  But boredom, like necessity, often proves the mother of invention.  And they invented entire worlds in the gardens, meadows and streams that surrounded them – worlds that later flowed from their pens onto receptive pages, worlds they shared with me, waiting anxious and unknowing, across the decades. 

I wonder if, when even the youngest of children can touch the wide world through today’s magic screens, do we deny them the fascination of the small?  Do we ever allow them to become bored enough to track an ant across the garden?  To follow the flight of the bluebird? To imagine the throat that gives voice to thunder, or the world to which a rabbit hole allows entry? Have we become so averse to leaving our children alone with themselves that we impair their ability to discover who they are, and by what small thing they may be fascinated? And is the same true for you, and for me?