Leonard Woolf spent seven years as a civil servant in Ceylon (1904-1911), seemingly a period of exile after five years (1899-1904) of intense intellectual life as an undergraduate at Cambridge. His explanation for this odd jag of career path offers a model of Education that's worth consideration as an alternative to the conventional framework of academic success:
Compared with most scholars I did little work at Cambridge, if work means going to lectures, reading, and stuffing your head with what will give you a high place in an examination. I hate lectures and, as at Trinity the authorities did not insist on scholars attending them punctiliously, I went to few. I read voraciously both in Greek and Latin and in English and French, but it was not the kind of diet which wins you very high marks in an examination. I am quite good at exams, but the truth is that I was a really first-class classical scholar when I came up from St. Paul's to Trinity, but nothing like as good when I took Part I of the Classical Tripos. When I took the Civil Service examination, I could read Greek and Latin fluently, as I still can, but I had forgotten all the paraphernalia of syntax and writing Greek and Latin compositions. The result was that I got poor marks in the classical papers in which I should have amassed most of my marks and so did extremely badly...This reminds me of a favorite quotation from John Ciardi:
I am glad too that I lived the kind of life at Trinity which was mainly the reason why I did not do well in the examinations. It was, I think, a civilized life both intellectually and emotionally. My intellect was kept at full stretch, which is very good for the young, by books and the way I read them and by friends and their incessant and uncompromising conversation. The emotion came from friendship and friends, but also from the place, the material and spiritual place, Trinity and Cambridge. (Sowing, pp 193-195)
A university is a reading and discussion club. If students knew how to use the library, they wouldn't need the rest of the buildings. The faculty's job, in great part, is to teach students how to use a library in a living way. All a student should really need is access to the library and a place to sleep. (from Ciardi Himself, 1989)So I find myself wondering if this path of voracious reading and conversation, in a setting that offers 'material and spiritual' support to the self-propelled Scholar, is still viable as a personal strategy? In retrospect, it seems a pretty good description of my own Education, in that so much of my path in undergraduate and graduate years was influenced by the riches of the locales (and especially by the bookstores of Cambridge MA and Palo Alto CA) and by the remarkable contemporaries with whom I spent so much time. I certainly remember professors and even a few courses that profoundly influenced my own development, but most of the real learning was anchored in people and places, not in curriculum and "training" as provided by institutions. Is that true for EVERYbody... and if so, doesn't it suggest that all those committee meetings and strategic plans and disciplinary wranglings are mostly wheelspinning?
Rudy Rucker's blog is always diverting, which is hardly a surprise: interesting uses of imagery, plenty of SantaCruxian-inflected wondering-out-loud, and the occasional gobsmacking one-liner. Today's posting carries on a tale of his glasses, lost in an off-trail canyon scramble in Big Basin Redwoods, and staying lost. So he goes looking for new frames, and summarizes his search thus:
Frame styles are finally rebounding from those tiny Benjamin Franklin Urim-and-Thummim type lenses that lamentably have been the fashion for the last ten years. Finally you can get some frames with decent-sized lenses so that youíre not peering at the world through tiny peepholes.As a longtime connoisseur of the varieties of oracles and scrying media (though not myself a slave to eyeglasses, or a scryer), this characterization delights me.
J.R.R. Tolkien filled a yawning gap in the Lexicon by rescuing and repurposing the Old English word maūm (see Michael Quinion's explication):
Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.Many are they who have appropriated the term for their own use, for the very good reason that it's an efficient descriptor for a universal household problem --indeed, for an information management quandary that is an inescapable facet of ubicomp. A lovely instance of hackerspeak exemplifies:
(The Fellowship of the Ring, pg ?)
This file contains mathoms, various binary artifacts from previous versions of Perl. For binary or source compatibility reasons, though, we cannot completely remove them from the core code. (Rafael Garcia-Suarez).
Gardner's Dispatch from EDUCAUSE has been echoing in the halls of my mind all day:
There is indeed a "delight in social archiving." A very fine phrase from Dr. Alexander. My reflection: we can all make not only civilizationís library, but civilizationís magic attic, the place where the intimate, uncanny cabinet of wonders stands in the corner, awaiting our exploration....but it was a chance encounter with an article in the November 1962 issue of Popular Mechanics
Micro-images could also be used to revolutionize libraries as we know them today. With micro-images, an entire library could be reduced to a single filing cabinet of three-by-five cards. These cards are expected to be so inexpensive to reproduce that the reader could afford to keep them. (pp. 109-110)and I can't resist quoting the penultimate paragraph for its oystery Cold War ethos:
A good many thoughtful Americans are wondering whether or not we still have the prerogative of proceeding slowly in the area of data storage and retrieval. Allen Kent, associate director of the Center for Documentation and Communication at Western Reserve University, said recently, "The Soviet Union has mounted a massive effort to 'brainpick' the world's recorded literature in order to assure a more effective scientific and technical effort on their part. We, too, must go in this direction, and our 'brainpicking' efforts have been desultory." (pg. 224)...and how can I possibly resist adding this illustration?
So hobbits and Bryan and Gardner and brainpicking. Where is all this headed? We are, in our fumbling and semi-conscious ways, building that "intimate, uncanny cabinet of wonders" and figuring out what its uses might be. For me this is an adventure in sorting out a lifetime's accumulation of STUFF, of THINGS that need to be arrayed, identified, glossed, indexed, tagged, narrated, contextualized, interpreted, juxtaposed ...in short, Made Accessible. The tools seem to be at my fingertips, though the overall Scheme still eludes me --or perhaps there doesn't need to be a Scheme for the Mathom House. And I can't help but wonder: is there any reason to think that our efforts won't look just as silly 45 years hence?
It's surely true that stuff heard at early ages can influence life's trajectory. Today I've been digitizing some vinyl, and I find myself dipping back into a slough of memories and associations that I've not visited in a long time. I found two LPs from my parents' record collection that were part of my life since they first got them, in (!!) 1949: Pleasure Dome [Columbia ML4259], a record of poets (Eliot, cummings, Moore, Ogden Nash...) reading their own work, and Edith Sitwell's FaÁade [Columbia ML2047]. On the former, it was Ogden Nash that I fastened upon at an early age, and these two were especially formative:
The Outcome of Mr. McLeod's Gratitude [1:11] and
So, Penseroso [1:52](see the text, complete with the parallel to Milton).
I listened to the Edith Sitwell record so many times that I memorized all of the pieces, and it was a great pleasure to discover (as I listened to the record while digitizing) that those bits are still in wetware. Two particularly choice fragments:
from "En Famille" [0:47] and
When Sir Beelzebub [0:48].
Come to think of it, without these I surely wouldn't be or have become myself...
Another bit, from much later in my personal development, is a wonderful Andy Statman mandolin break [0:54], from Wretched Refuse String Band's 1978 recording of "Those Wheels of Karma". My (vain) attempt to find (and so not have to transcribe...) the lyrics to the tune led me to a story from NPR on Citizen Kafka (All Things Considered, April 17, 2001). The Citizen (Richard Shulberg) is co-host of WMFU's Secret Museum of the Air, one of my most favoritist archives/podcasts.
I'm gonna try to beat Gardner to the blogosphere with this pointer to Jon Udell, but I'll bet he'll have more interesting thoughts on the posting. The title, First have a great use experience, then have a great user experience, is pretty eye-catching (and exemplifies Udell's gift for concise packaging of complexities, yet again), and the opening story (about giving his convalescent dad an mp3 player "to give him an alternative to the in-room TV") is a nice hook to get the reader involved... but then in paragraph 3 he slugs us with what is for me the real message of the piece:
In the tech industry, though, I think we often pretend that the mop-up operation is the battle. We talk obsessively about the user experience, and we recognize that we invariably fail to make it as crisp and coherent as it should be. But user experience is an overloaded term. I propose that we unpack it into (at least) two separate concepts. One is the basis of the ďahaĒ moment. For now Iíll call it the use experience...As I read this and the two following paragraphs, my fevered brain substituted education for tech, and thus exposed a grand challenge to those who aspire to Teach:
How do you engineer a great use experience, as opposed to a great user experience?Context for this substitution is surely Gardner's pointer to George Steiner on teachers and students, which provoked my purchase of Steiner's Lessons of the Masters, a book I'm reading with a mixture of awe [of Steiner's erudition], regret [at my own trail of missed opportunities], and irritation [mostly at Steiner's Olympian tone]. Steiner and Udell and Campbell are all onto something really profound. One bit of Steiner will suffice as an example:
Computation, information theory and retrieval, the ubiquity of the internet and the global web enact far more than a technological revolution. They entail transformations of awareness, of habits of perception and articulation, of reciprocal sensibility which we are scarcely beginning to gauge. At manifold terminals and synapses they will connect with our (possibly analogous) nervous system and cerebral structures. Software will become, as it were, internalized and consciousness may have to grow a second skin.A lot to chew on for a Sunday morning... and see Wikiquote for some more succulent Steiner quotations.
The impact on the learning process is already momentous. At his console, the schoolchild branches into new worlds. As does the student with his laptop and the researcher searching the web. Conditions of collaborative exchange and debate, of memory storage, of immediate transmission and graphic representation have already reorganized numerous aspects of Wissenschaft. The screen can teach, examine, demonstrate, interact with a precision, a clarity, and a patience exceeding that of a human instructor. Its resources can be disseminated and enlisted at will. It knows neither prejudice nor fatigue. In turn, the apprentice can question, object, answer back in a dialectic whose pedagogic value may come to surpass that of spoken discourse. (pg. 180)
A posting a few days ago at Old Blue Bus pointed me to a piece of sheer genius by Derek McCulloch & Shepherd Hendrix, Stagger Lee --a graphic novel, which was delivered last night by good old amazon.com (well, good old UPS brought it up the drive last night) and inhaled by me in a couple of hours. Friends, this one is really worth your time on the folklore account (and probably other accounts as well). The basic story is pretty well known, and has been recorded in who-knows-how-many variants by ...well, just about everybody you can think of. The authors have a blog to trace the unfolding saga of the book, and various other bloggers have weighed in with praise and commentary. Today there's an interesting extension providing details on the list of versions of the song that the authors listened to as they wrote and drew the book:
When setting out to write this story, the logical thing for me to do was to collect as many different versions of the song as I could lay hands on. Iím still collecting versions today, but by the time I was ready to write my book, I had 36 versions, filling up two full hours on a pair of CDs. I listened to these two discs continuously as I wrote. When I was finished, I passed the script and the discs on to my collaborator, Shepherd Hendrix, who listened to them as he drew. These are the songs from Disc One of the literal soundtrack for our work on this book...There's lots more on the legend at James P. Hauser's site, including his essay Stagger Lee: From Mythic Blues Ballad to Ultimate Rock 'n' Roll Record. He points to the forthcoming film Black Snake Moan, in which Samuel Jackson performs a [NSFW] version of the song.
The one I really wish Iíd found in time to put on the disc is an improvised performance by Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Memphis Slim off a disc called Blues in the Mississippi Night. Thatís one that should be tracked down by any serious aficionado of Stagger Lee.
I've been skipping around in the volumes of Leonard Woolf's autobiography (ordered used from various Amazon sellers), charmed by his starchy octogenarian British chattiness. Here's an arresting bit, especially in consideration of one's own legacies of commission and omission:
Looking back at the age of eighty-eight over the fifty-seven years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I have achieved practically nothing. the world today  and the history of the human anthill during the last fifty-seven years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make the rather ignominious confession to myself and to anyone who may read this book that I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work... (pg 158)Woolf does conclude the chapter on a less bleak note:
...in a wider context, though all that I tried to do politically was completely futile and ineffective and unimportant, for me personally it was right and important that I should do it, even though at the back of my mind I was well aware that it was ineffective and unimportant. To say this is to say that I agree with what Montaigne, the first civilized modern man, says somewhere: "It is not the arrival, it is the journey which matters".
(The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, pg 172)
The whole rotation of sponsors has a mordant quality, with these alternating with Borat:
Who says the Grey Lady has no sensa yuma?
From the Future of the Book blog, an implementation of a "critical edition" of that Bush speech, inviting annotation ("a running conversation in the margins") and thus a practical example of wiki-like colloquy. The same folks did the Iraq Study Group Report in the same format, as part of their Operation Iraqi Quagmire. I think I see the Future more clearly. Bravo.
This morning's New York Times editorial on Bush's address is predictably scathing (The Real Disaster), but was rendered even more poignant by the logo for the sponsor of the "article tools":
(You might have to refresh the page a few times to see that sponsor... there are others)
If you've never heard of Rousas John Rushdoony and William J. Federer, you need to read Jeff Sharlet's piece just posted at Harpers.org: Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history.
Boy, gotta love this bit from McLuhan's Understanding Media, in re: iPhone and any other Object of Desire:
Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates manís love by expediting his wishes and desires.(See more via John Holbo's posting at Crooked Timber)
George W.S. Trow calls this passage "my personal favorite Mainstream American Cultural Artifact" (well, I've chosen out the part that I find most significant, and added some emphasis):
The man of today is a citizen of the world. He seems to be ubiquitous. It is as though he had a thousand eyes and ears and, alas, only one mind. Thought has two conditions. First, knowledge as food and stimulus, second, time for distributing and digesting that knowledge. But the first is so superabundantly fulfilled that it completely obliterates the second. Knowledge comes pouring in from all quarters so rapidly that the man can hardly receive, much less arrange and think out, the enormous mass of facts daily accumulating upon him. The boasted age of printing presses and newspapers, of penny magazines and penny encyclopedias is not necessarily the age of thought. There is a worldwide difference between knowledge and wisdom. The one consists of facts as they are, the other of facts as they may be. The one sees events, the other relations.Seems pretty modern, doesn't it? A nice summary of what we're enmeshed in here in 2007, no? It was penned by one John A. French, and published in Continental Monthly in March 1864, and Trow cites it in My Pilgrim's Progress, pp 174-175. His summary comment:
When I first read that, I was astounded. Was I involved in some multigenerational, genetic thing quite beyond my understanding? Well, I think, yes, and I think that in the next century, either people will have lost all memory and will start from scratch, or they will integrate with a multigenerational view of their experience. The failure of modernity means, among other things, that we will either start from scratch with nothing or we will find that we are necessarily connected with who we were before the process got rocking and rolling.Something to chew upon as I contemplate the mountain of family photographs awaiting my attention...
(My Pilgrim's Progress, pg 175)
I've just finished reading a couple of books by George W.S. Trow: Within the Context of No Context and My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998, and I'm sort of brimming over things I want to say about them, and about reading them, and about what-all else they connect to in my own life.
Is it that I want you to read them? Not really... I mean, who has the time to read stuff unless there's a really good and clearly personal reason to read this instead of the many thats which compete for one's eyeballs. Or is it that I want you to think good thoughts about me reading them? That's probably closer to the mark (sez: I've just read a couple of books that were extremely meaningladen for me, amn't I a good boy? and don't you wish that you could feel the weight of the meaningladenness?). But really it's that I want to try to sort out for myself why these books mean, why they reach me in unique ways, and just what those ways are.
From adolescence on, George William Swift Trow was a cult figure of sorts, whose fame, though for a time considerable, was a lagging indicator of his influence, which made itself felt through his personal and literary impact on other writers and on certain institutions, notably but not exclusively this magazine. He was an essayist, aphorist, journalist, satirist, and analyst (and annalist) of what he once labelled, with characteristically arch capitalization, Mainstream American Cultural Artifacts...and Stephen Metcalf's "Assessing the legacy..." from Slate:
Every generation or so, a disappointed preppy marvels at the demise of the Protestant ascendancy he took for granted in his childhood, and out of an embarrassed mix of pride and self-reproach, writes a masterpiece. A line can be drawn, in attenuated blue blood, from Henry Adams to Robert Lowell, then extended out to include George W. S. Trow...And while you're at it, also take a look at Mark Feeny's take in The New York Observer:
..the Harvard class of 1965 was the one Eustace Tilly fell on. Its members included Trow, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jacob Brackman, Jonathan Schell and Wallace Shawn (who qualifies as a legacy, if not a hire)...You might also take a look at Dennis Perrin's blog reminiscence of an interview with Trow.
Now, George W.S. Trow is an exact contemporary of mine (born in September 1943), and I'm at a point in life where contemporaneity means a lot more than it used to, partly because there's a noticeably diminishing stock of it, as contemporaries shuffle off, Stage Right. Furthermore, he's a college classmate, though I certainly never knew him in those years. I knew of him (he was president of The Harvard Lampoon, and moved in circles more exalted than those I found comfortable), and I've followed his writing for a lot of years in the New Yorker, always marveling at his way with le mot juste. So it's like I know him, but he didn't know me.
Still, there are these overlappings. We share an abiding fascination with the Nacirema, one of the wilder and woolier of the world's cultures. He studied them up close, mostly in the urban belly of the beast; my vantage points were Borneo and Nova Scotia. He's a student of media, and of the clothing of emperors. Here's an example of his observational acuity, in a context that's especially meaningful for me:
New England is history. Step One. Step Two. Do this. Do that. This happened. That happened. It all adds up to New England. It doesn't break down from something else. It is no share of anything larger. History takes a certain course, and it adds up to New England. Of course, once it does, you can work it in other ways. New England as a phrase means a certain thing, because certain things have added up to mean New England. But once a phrase means a certain thing, you can abuse the meaning and twist it: refer to the sense of what "New England" means to suit your purposes, which may not have correct reference to the history of New England --which may, in fact, directly oppose the essence of that history. SHOT OF FABULOUS OLD NEW ENGLAND INN. Look at the clapboards. So white. Look at the porch. Why, Mrs. Martin you're pouring Silt-Whip over that old New England cherry cobbler. Of course it's Silt-Whip; nothing else is good enough for Martin's Inn....Now, this is ethnography in a New Key, no doubt about it. It's allusive and witty and telegraphic and committed, whereas the traditional pedestrian mode of ethnography is stodgy and 'objective' and inoffensive and, well, tired. And the passage is exemplary of Trow's style: he's forever picking out details that one wouldn't have noticed particularly, and foregrounding them, making them the focus of the point he's making. He's a genius of juxtaposition, illuminating linkages which are invisible until he turns the light upon them.
(Within the Context of No Context, pp 58-59)
He says in several places that he thinks and sees "demographically", which is to say that he thinks of population phenomena, and is especially sensitive to the analytical frame of age cohorts (though he doesn't use that term) --he does the mental calculation to ascertain when the actors in his stories were born, how old they were in [e.g.,] 1950, who their contemporaries were. I've been doing that same thing myself for as long as I can remember, being aware of age cohorts and the perspectives their inhabitants share with other members, and/or don't share with members of other cohorts.
Each one of these social generations --from the '50s, from the '60s. from the '70s, from the Reagan era, from now-- thinks of its social aesthetic as definitive. In fact, they are all in a process: encouraged toward, and beyond, hubris, by demography.Both books are full of dates,most of them serving as place markers in people's lives and tied to the vaudeville of Cultural Artifacts and to specific examples of the always-shifting Zeitgeist.
(Within the Context of No Context, pg 12)
In 1958, the people I had moved next door to not only were universally considered to make up the ruling group of the country; they owned the rituals: the schools, the clubs, the ladders. Part of their style was to say, "But of course, we're just ordinary Americans." Five years later they were just ordinary Americans, and their rituals --including the dogs and the horses, maybe-- were burdens, and were so perceived by their children.
(Within the Context of No Context, pg 23)
I dimly remember the original form of a big chunk of one week's New Yorker in 1980, but I didn't manage to read it then --it was in too new an expository form, and I just didn't spend the time to get it, didn't recognize its relevance to my own pursuits. A lot of Within the Context has to do with the powers of television, and I've spent most of my life with my back turned to television (though not to film, and not to serials originally made for television... but that's another story).
Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there. In the place where this scale has its home, childish agreements can be arrived at and enforced effectively --childish agreements, and agreements wearing the mask of childhood.
Television has a scale. It has other properties, but what television has to a dominant degree is a certain scale and the power to enforce it...
The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.
It is bewitching.
It interferes with growth, conflict, and destruction, and these forces are different in its presence.
"Entertainment" is an unsatisfactory word for what it encloses or projects or makes possible.
No good has come of it.
(Within the Context of No Context, pg 45)
It was back in October that I spied Within the Context of No Context [the 1997 reprinting, with an added introduction assessing the 17 intervening years] in one of the used bookstores I frequent, and I picked it up and leafed through it... and put it back on the shelf. A month later I read that George W.S. Trow was dead, and went back to the shelf and there it was, so I bought it, thinking that I really did finally have a reason to read it. I'm really glad I did.
So I sez, "...doubtless I SHOULD read the new book. I don't seem much inclined to SHOULDs these days..."
and Carolyn replies, "Nor SHOULD you... except for whiskey. Whiskey you should do. (was listening to Hamza at lunchtime whence the synesthetic pun)"
For those who don't catch the latter reference, here's the bit she's referring to, from Hamza el Din's first record (on Vanguard, about 1964)
...and the only possible response is another favorite musical quote, from the old Folkways Music of Afghanistan (Mrs. Parwin and Chorus --the real title is "A rose is blooming", but I've always heard it as "John Fonda, Whaddya Know?").
Anybody have any others in this realm of lyrical bogosity? Perhaps cousins to the form called Mondegreen?
Conversation was his art, and for him the tragedy was that he should have chosen so ephemeral a medium... he would turn up at Richmond for dinner, uninvited very probably, and probably committed to a dinner elsewhere, charm his way out of his social crimes on the telephone, talk enchantingly until the small hours, insist that he be called early so that he might attend to urgent business on the morrow, wake up a trifle late, dawdle somewhat over breakfast, find a passage in The Times to excite his ridicule, enter into a lively discussion of Ibsen, declare that he must be off, pick up a book which reminded him of something which, in short, would keep him talking until about 12.45, when he would have to ring up and charm the person who had been waiting in an office for him since 10, and at the same time deal with the complications arising from the fact that he had engaged himself to two different hostesses for lunch, and that it was now 1 o'clock and it would take forty minutes to get from Richmond to the West End. In all this Desmond had been practising his art --the art of conversation.
(Quentin Bell Virginia Woolf: a biography Vol 2, pg 82)
Did anyone ever suffer as I did? You might have seen my soul shriveling like a -- I cannot remember the image exactly, but its something one does by rubbing a piece of sealing wax & then everything curls up --as if in agony. Not that there was any imagery about it in my case. But the immanent greatness of my soul formed, as it were, a cream upon the surface. I survived.
(18 June 1919, quoted in a footnote on pg. 66 of Vol 2 of Quentin Bell's Virginia Woolf: a biography)
My friend Carolyn circulated a list of books she'd found especially enjoyable in 2006, saying "I was hoping for a reciprocal list from a like-minded biblio-omnivore...", and it got me thinking about books and other stuff of 2006. Turns out to be quite a challenge to summarize, particularly when one strays from the printed page and tries to summarize engagement with the various media that brighten one's days.
I read quite differently than I did when I was employed --no classes to prepare, nobody to please but myself-- but the inspirations are as varied as ever. I don't seem to have stopped buying books, though the rate has slowed considerably. I re-read a lot of stuff, especially Terry Pratchett (either you do or don't understand WHY one would do that), and I'm in and out of lotsa books that I don't read cover to cover. Here's a list for the year of memorable ones that I did finish (or am surely working on as we speak).
I realized that my Netflix history would tell another facet of the media tale, so I extracted that. Anybody with a day job will be envious of the time I've clearly spent in viewing mode.
Web video has attracted a lot of my interest in the last year, mostly via YouTube, and I've grabbed a lot of Flash video files (but don't feel the need to catalog them here... but see this one for all you need to know about WHY the medium Matters). I'm also a devoted follower of Ze Frank's daily The Show .
A lot of hours during the year were spent walking or otherwise exercising, usually with MP3s in the ears, mostly talk. Radio Open Source is absolutely GOLDEN, viz: Bach's Chaconne (24MB, about 50 minutes). This American Life's archives were open for a while, and are now being podcast one at a time. And then there's WFMU, and especially Secret Museum of the Air with Citizen Kafka and Pat Conte. I download a LOT of mp3 stuff, NONE of it from the pay-by-the-drink sites.
Every day includes a couple of hours of blog reading, from a list of some 300-odd that I follow (some fall off, some fall on). Boing Boing, Language Log, Informed Comment, EatingAsia, several Google Earth blogs... those are the absolute essentials, and I'm still following IT Conversations and Stephen Downes' Edu_RSS, but getting further from the IT and pedagogical interests that used to be pretty central.
I've bought CDs during the year, probably more than I'd like to admit. Making a list would be ummmmmm dangerous... and I also acquired my late brother David's vinyl holdings, many hundreds of records across quite a few genres and including a couple of hundred Bach, and hundreds of hours of cassette tapes of Bach, Vivaldi, etc. I'm gradually thinking through what to DO with that trove (satrting with cataloging, a daunting prospect).
I'm thinking that an appropriate Goal for the year is to work at gaining more control over the many threads of my own personal Narrative. This means sorting out and interconnecting a lot of stuff in many formats and disparate media (images, papers, html documents, sound files, vinyl records, CDs, videos, books, realia... more, and more varied, than you can imagine...), partly so that I can navigate it better myself, and partly because somewhere in there is legacy (though it's not clear to whom, or for what). I made some pretty energetic beginnings in 2006, messing with timelines, quarrying Nova Scotia Faces, and starting on 45 years of negatives from my several lives as a photographer, but the coherence of it all is arguable, or at the very least, a subject for construction. I'm not really sure how to set about this Odyssey, other than casting off and seeing where the winds take me (and tracking waypoints via this blog), but a convenient organizing principle might be an exploration of narrativium, a Substance instantiated (as far as I know) in The Science of Discworld (Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen [three volumes: 1999, 2002, 2006])
Our minds make stories, and stories make our minds. Each culture's Make-a-Human kit is built from stories, and maintained by stories. A story can be a rule for living according to one's culture, a useful survival trick, a clue to the grandeur of the universe, or a mental hypothesis about what might happen if we pursue a particular course. Stories map out the phase space of existence (II: 327).
The characteristic feature of narrativium is that it makes stories hang together. The human mind loves a good dose of narrativium. (I:64)
A little narrativium goes a long way: the simpler the story, the better you understand it. Storytelling is the opposite of reductionism: 26 letters and some rules of grammar are no story at all. (I: 93)
Narrativium is powerful stuff. We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn't affect what the rules say -- not much, anyway -- but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories.... (I: 11)
Humans add narrativium to their world. They insist on interpreting the universe as if it's telling a story. This leads them to focus on facts that fit the story, while ignoring those that don't. (I:233)
...humans seem to need to project a kind of interior decoration on to the universe, so that they spend much of the time in a world of their own making. We seem --at least at the moment-- to need these things. Concepts like gods, truth and the soul appear to exist only in so far as humans consider them to do so... But they work some magic for us. They add narrativium to our culture. They bring pain, hope despair, and comfort. They wind up our elastic. Good or bad, they've made us into people. (I: 166)
Our children have been hearing stories since they recognized any words at all, and by three years old they are making up their own stories about what is happening around them. We are all impressed by their vocabulary skills, and by their acquisition of syntax and semantics; but we should also note how good they are at making narratives out of events. From about five years old, they get their parents to do things for them by placing those things in narrative context. And most of their games with peers have a context, within which stories are played out. The context they create is just like that of the animal and fairy stories we tell them. The parents don't instruct the child how to do this, nor do the children have to elicit the 'right' storytelling behaviours from their parents. This is an evolutionary complicity. It seems very natural --after all, we are Pan narrans-- that we tell stories to children, and that children and parents enjoy the activity. We learn about 'narrativium' very early in our development, and we use it and promote it for the whole of our lives. (II: 152)
Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination. (III: 1-2)
We are not Homo sapiens, Wise Man. We are the third chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from the ordinary chimpanzee Pan troglodytes and the bonobo chimpanzee Pan paniscus, is something far more subtle than our enormous brain, three times as large as theirs in proportion to body weight. It is what that brain makes possible. And the most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story. We are Pan narrans, the storytelling ape. (II: 325)...and while we're on the subject of close relatives, take note of the Orangutan Connection, via a blog posting that references Mona Lisa Smile: The Morphological Enigma of Human and Great Ape Evolution, The Anatomical Record (Part B: New Anatomist) 289B: 139-157
...if you understand the power of story, and learn to detect abuses of it, you might actually deserve the appelation Homo sapiens. (II: 330)