Monday, August 9, 2010

Ancient Wonders, New Media
When a fortnight ago I mentioned Sir Harry Lauder in relation to the Beatles I had in my mind that my oldest Lauder recordings not only are 78rpm 12-inch disks that play for about 5 minutes but that several of them are acoustical and one-sided and pressed in hard rubber: pre-shellac. Those would be his very oldest recordings. My 78rpm turntable needs a new belt, and I need to get a converter to digitize them, besides. But I have many of his later electrically recorded ones in LPs.
My first experience with computers was with sorters and punchers that recorded letters and numerals in plain binary on the latest thing: IBM cards. I could 'program' a steel 'board' by connecting from hole to hole on it with small RCA-like cables. When we demonstrated to preserve, as an historical and architectural monument, the Old Mint in San Francisco, one of the main arguments was that, built to sustain minting machinery, its floors were strong enough even to hold computers.
But we accustom ourselves to new wonders very easily, and so quickly that the question is whether we have truly assessed the importance of each novelty before it is superseded.
My first 33 1/3 rpm turntable was made to play through our 1929 Electrola radio-phonograph; a clever electrician must have replaced some capacitors in it, I suppose. Its cartridge and the Electrola's amplifier were not really compatible.
And so on.
Now, my first personal computer in 1987 or 1988 was an IBM PS-2 running DOS 4.0. Though some friends were on line, I never saw anything when I visited them of any interest to me: I mean, a hand-held stereoscope with an albumen-print card gave me a better image of the Moon, or the Alps or Pyramids, or three small children in a bathtub than anything in 72 dpi at that date did. But as an extra attraction the PS-2 came with a fully colorized fractals program. This blew my mind, you could say. It would be a decade before I had Graphic Calculator, and the utter miracle of Google Earth (and just click to go to street level and look around) was still undreamed of. Why, we didn't yet have Mosaic or the first Netscape, though in a couple of years some terminals in the university library's Reference Room were running them. My first computer that was on line was the Mac in my office at the university which had Gopher and let me blissfully peruse every library card catalogue in the world. Research was altered forever.
But it is the programs that ran fractals that interest me here, though they are perhaps less interesting than the fibonacci sequence, which a substitute teacher one day at Oakland High School had mesmerized us 11th graders with on the chalkboard. Yet this was our grandparents' math and even older than that in Indian mathematics. It was a revelation.
So when I first read Sir Thomas Browne and a few months ago recalled him in a Post here, and so came to know the blog Aquarium of Vulcan, though Browne cited minds like Paracelsus's that were still recent when he wrote, when I read The Garden of Cyrus I thought how much Sir Thomas Browne would have loved the fractal patterns and their prevalence in nature and how he would have loved to muse on fibonacci numbers and their Pythagorean-like analogues and on and on: wouldn't he like to think about quantum physics, too? Surely his mind was more apt for quantum physics than mine is. My mind, of course, is perfectly geared to his interest in archaeological evidence in the Hydriotaphia: what kind of coins, of which reigns, were found where, what kind of burial rites could be observed? For all his studies in the best Schools abroad, he seems to me, as a doctor and an Englishman of Norwich, at his very best in such diagnostics! What a lovable observer, what an honest thinker he was, with a good physicist's theoretical imagination and a sober doctor's careful considerations.
Because I believe that just as in my three-quarters of a century I have easily accepted and come to take for granted the iPad (and the nanopod touch, for goodness sake!), and just as People of the Yellow Leaves (if I recall that name correctly) from Laos are now regular Americans in Minnesota, a brilliant and open-minded man like Sir Thomas Browne might, if alive today, be trying to decide about string theory (for example).