Friday, November 21, 2008

Cellulose Automata?

Most of us occasionally reflect, listening to the radio while driving, or when in want of an antenna, that surrounding us, running through us and everywhere are the voices of the radio and music of the world. A richness that is ever present has more in common with metaphysics than common sense. But still you can listen with a radio if you have one. So it had become a kind of postmodern shorthand for me in my youth to imagine information as a pervasive, and still abstract thing, of books and brains and waves in the air. Sometimes if I were lucky, or in the right light, I just might encounter it. How the world has changed.

My brother and I, maybe fifteen years ago, used to joke about a "trivia device" the purpose of which was to serve as a sort of intellectuals opium den, wasting large swaths of potential productivity, enlightening pleasurably its user, who would hardly notice the burdens of their new found knowledge. Clearly, my brother and I were unaware of the days ahead of us.

As a twelve-year old in Zionsville, Indiana, I had at my disposal what is still known as a memorial library. It did not occur to me at the time how appropriate the modifier "Memorial" was to that profoundly inadequate institution. I was just thrilled to have some access to books. I'll never forget the librarian refusing to lend me a book about cancer. I'm sure she meant well. A spoon full of ignorance helps/makes alot of things go down.

There were luckily many books in my family's household. Leatherbound Eastern Press books were a monthly feature in the mail (remarkably only fifteen dollars more expensive each than a newsstand magazine). My parents, who had a good income, regarded owning books as a pretty normal and even healthy thing. As my childhood progressed our bookshelves sagged with our mutual collections. Only once I left home did I realize what a wonderful thing that was.

There were two libraries in central Indiana that memorably impacted me. One was the downtown Main Library (Central Library perhaps, I don't really remember its name, strangely). I'll never forget signal moments in my life going there. As a child with my mom (never to borrow books, I believe) to look up data for science fair projects (where was the internet then? my father did buy Godiva chocolates for Grandma on Compuserve! what was the baud rate?) The same day the Space Shuttle Challanger was lost in 1987, my mother took me to that library. For some reason I think of the way that felt, and looked, the growing smoky dusk of a certain era for a country, through the eyes of a child researching at a temple of knowledge, a roost for human dreams and pigeons alike.

The other library was the Nora library, east of our neck of the woods, near North Central High School of Indianapolis. While certainly no monument to Neo-Classicism, the architecture of great ideas (and super silly looking ostentation on a mcmansion, or better, doublewide), the pedestrian, single level city library, at Nora, had something more powerful to the boy of privilidge from Zionsville: the atmosphere of well worn knowledge seeking. Something about the library spelled "museum of knowledge use" to me. That is the library I remember when I tell people how profoundly libraries have moved me since I was a tiny little boy. I used to walk into the library, and stop, looking out across the stacks and still standing card catalogue (it had computers, but the boxy old relics were still being used by a few of us). Even as a child I remember thinking of the strangeness of having so much available to me for no, you might say, commodified reason. Why all this information? Why all this power? Inventors discovered, and reasearchers dedicated their lives so they could have their singular accomplishments condensed to this? It seemed strange to me as a child. By the time I was in high school I would enter the library and wonder what historical figures would make of the information. Would they run around, in a state of fever, exclaiming constantly? In time, I came to realize, I was that historical figure, for what did I know of the knowledge of the world? Epistemological wandering might be a kind of time travel. Unless imagining the branches of human accomplishment were its equivalent. To this day I wonder about that.
What would Jefferson make of your local library? What do you make of it? What will I make of it?
With all of this, one might think I feel defensive about the internet, but I have been enormously inspired by the librarians. Between Google, private/public partnerships, ect. the librarians seem to realize their shelves are bigger than ever, and man is that true. I was shopping for a hard drive the other day and noticed to my astonishment that if I bought one for under $200.00, it would almost ceratainly be a Terabyte drive. I still can't forget trying to fill the first hard drive I ever bought in 1987; how does anyone fill up 200 megabytes my brother and I mused. That was a megabyte per dollar of our Christmas money. A two hundred dollar Terabyte couldn't have been imagined.
Recently I saw a TED presentation about the digitization of books. I do not remember who gave the presentation, but it hardly matters given how incredible even a random pick of TED speakers generally is. (Dave Eggers Wish: Every child in every community have a few hours of adult attention assigned to them by a wonderful free floating volunteer organization. Study after study shows the impact of a child knowing throughout their life that a least one adult is thinking of them. Cheap and powerful solutions to heartbreaking problems.) The secret speaker I am not remembering was trying to help the audience visualize the size of the memory device needed to warehouse the books and media of the entire Library of Congress. It would not exceed the size of one typical card catalogue cabinet. One. I believed him due to my hard drive shopping I spoke of above. The Library of Congress has something like less than one hundred terabytes in its collection. Somehow I find that just stranger than fiction.
So the question is whether my pedestrian somatic associations of the environment heretofore known as "Library" will continue in this world of the endlessly unfolding internet. It is true, like so many other such individuated paradigms of localized identity, the library lives as symbol, brick and morter idealism, a surprise to the cynic, but sustanance too. Its physical reality meant that its catalogues could never hold hyper-cards. But its walls and floor, its doors and windows, its location, and air conditioning, are all bowed in deference to that vessel of the human soul: the body. And we seekers walk in the library, passing the sunlight from the window, sometimes (how rare this is) giving no heed to it at all, as we pay no passing attention to a warmer glow: the promise of knowledge. Piled in (what else): stacks. That is why we love you library. And that is why we will remember you as we fall with gathering speed into the Mandelbrotian like set of knowledge itself. Weightless like waterbabies, we will still remember.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dandelions Gone

About two weeks ago, sometime near the beginning of November, there was a hard freeze here in Bloomington Indiana. Though a weekday when I certainly arise earlier usually than I would like, I woke especially early that day, due to an inability to fall back asleep at 4:30 AM. Rolling my eyes at the creaking of my knees and the growling of my stomach, I went through the motions until I had opened the back door to my house and noticed the twenty some degree chill scratching at my face. It gradually occured to me that I would be enduring this weather--- or be without coffee. My astonishment changed as I walked the street, to a grudging resentment that seems as much a part of winter as snow. Once I arrived at the coffee shop, bought my coffee, and settled into a seat with a great John McPhee book (see below), I began to think back to the beginning of the warm season which that morning, it seemed, had ended according to the measure I care most about: is it basically warm, or basically cold. It was cold now. And what I remembered, what crossed my mind, were dandelions on a Saturday morning, sometime back in earlyApril. Or was it the first of May?
The farmers market never really ends here in Bloomington Indiana. Everyone likes the progress of the salad days of late May and June, when progress seems as much a function of the rising sun as any choice we mortals might make. Wouldn't it have been great if stepping out of my house in early November had had that delicious sense of purpose that the dew dappled late spring brings the folk walking down to the farmers market. But even with the rattling of the Ash trees and clinging Oak leaves, the Farmers market will be found eventually indoors for the duration of winter. For its duration, greens and meat, cheese and nuts, herbs and cellared pommes, persimmon pulp (no problem in Indiana), and cold frame grown Mache. All winter long the procession of a certain brand of liberal principles and the people and personages they frequently embody giving a buck for a little heat and savor from the lands that surround us. And then, a breeze and a few shoots of green... its May day and Saucer Magnolias are opening their buds, I am walking beneath one such tree, down to the farmers market, for the first day of its second month back outside. April through November. Then winter market. But last spring the now bare Magnolias were purple and white, and the morris dancers clicked their sticks together like rams at the market. Everyone felt cheered by the sun and the remainder of the season, like a Friday night and a twenty dollar bill. I stumbled around the market, off balance with hellos, and remembering names. I bought a coffee, some mesclun mix, and walked around making a nuisance of myself, asking more questions than appropriate, having a gay old time. Before long I was walking home with a bag of vegetables and eggs, a few plants for the garden, and my last cup of coffee. While I walked a light rain began to fall, but I didn't care. Spring and rain are interchangable to me. I walked smelling the honeysuckle; finishing my coffee. Arriving at my house and inspired by my new plants I set the vegetables and eggs on my front stoop and prompty fell to my kness in the "grass" (Blooomington's laudable term for shorn weeds. One of the reasons I love this town is that thick funeral home turf looks so strange in even the most middle class neighborhood. On my steet, there is no grass.) I surveyed the yard enjoying for perhaps the thousandth time the fact that I could do whatever I wanted. It didn't matter one bit. As long as I didn't plant beneath the broke down Biscane over on the south side of the property I realized I could plant whatever I wanted, wherever. The rain tinkled, and dripped down my face. The temperature was neither hot nor cold. I looked down at my soaked pants, and my eyes were drawn to the violets and dandelions surrounding me. Bending low I peered at the little hairs on the leaves of the dandelions, laughing a little to myself at the trouble those hairs must cause a bug of a certain size and desire. The purple violets and sunshine color of the dandelions seemed to spill in a strangely purposeful splash of beauty. I went inside the house and returned with a bowl to collect greens and picked a bowl full. Slowly an awe filled me at this universe of tiny colors and beads of water bending splinters of light. I looked up and saw what seemed an endless plain or rainforest canopy, mabye twenty feet of my yard, towards the water shut off cover. That morning, on my wet knees in the rain, my body felt huge and the yard seemed an immense place of endless and beautiful complexity. And two weeks ago the enzymatic fire that began as the average temperature reached the middle sixties degrees farenheight in spring, sizzled and hissed to a head of steam from the vent pipes of my neighbors roof. The warm placental resilency of the warm season was over.