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we continue to struggle with machines
january 12, 2002
We continue to struggle with machines.
Last weekend, the fourth and fifth, I spent some time scanning photographs I took years ago of my parents and different animals, to add to SENTENCE Photographs, using an HP scanner we've had for a couple of years. After I digitized about half of them, I started bringing them up on the monitor and discovered they all had urine-yellow bands running horizontally across each image, about three bands per image.
I received a free scanner with my new Dell Dimension computer, which I bought a couple of months ago, but the scanner was useless, because it didn't include drivers for Windows XP, the operating system Dell placed on my computer. Since Dell offered the scanner as a promotional item for their new XP-enabled computers, it seemed odd they would include as part of their package a scanner that didn't work with XP, but there you have it. Some people talk of Dell's 'legendary' customer service, but to me, their customer service is awful. They make great computers, but I've e-mailed them several times about specific problems I've had with the computer, and each time they've sent me an impersonal list of stock answers based, apparently, on keywords in my question, none of which actually addressed my question.
Because we scan a lot of photographs, we have boxes and boxes of them, going back over twenty years, we decided to buy a new scanner, this one an Epson.
It's amazing. The old HP scanner took about half an hour to scan each picture (I'm not exaggerating). This one produces an amazingly clear image in about 30 seconds. Thank God for those urine-yellow bars. Otherwise, we would have been struggling with the old scanner's slowness for years.
The same weekend, that Sunday, we rented a bunch of videos and stopped on the way home at Sonic Drive-In to pick up some fast food to eat while we watched the movies. For those of you who have never heard of it, Sonic is a chain specializing in chili dogs, cheeseburgers, onion rings, milk shakes, and every other mid-twentieth century food item that tastes so good you don't regret the heart attack twenty years later. They have a foot long Coney dog, a hot dog twelve inches long in a soft bun, buried under steaming chili and melted cheese. Lifting it up to your mouth in both hands is like lifting a long, skinny slinky (the best chili dog I've ever had in my life came from a little wooden drive-up stand set in the middle of a paved parking lot in North Dallas. They were incredible. It was like eating a cloud in Heaven. The stand also made the best cheeseburgers I've ever eaten, hot, wide, wonderful, messy burgers that looked like something cooked on a backyard grill, rather than the flat patties from McDonald's, but far better than backyard, with a mouth-filling cheese flavor, and the pleasant aftertaste of crushed black pepper. Mary and I, while we both worked in the area, used to go to the stand about two times a week. The stand could only fit two people inside, it was that small, an older, black-haired woman, who took the orders and handed you your change, who was always friendly and so over-joyed to see us each time, to where she'd take pride in guessing what our order would be, and she was usually right, and her black-haired brother, who did the cooking, he was on the quiet side, we usually only saw his back, and sometimes a smile over a shoulder. Why would we ever stop going there? Well, the woman started getting a little strange. One week, we only went one day instead of two, we had meetings or something that conflicted, I forget, and the next time we went, she said, "I don't see you earlier this week. Is everything okay?" We mentioned the meeting, or whatever it was, but the next week we also only went once, something else had come up, and the next time we pulled up, she mentioned seeing our car, the day before, pull into the Kentucky Fried Chicken lot, rather than where she was. "Why? Why you do this?" It was embarrassing. She had all kinds of wrinkles in her eye sockets, and the small black eyes within those sockets were pleading. I think we went about one more time, a couple of weeks later, feeling uncomfortable, hoping she'd gotten back to normal. She actually cried when we pulled up, wiping her sleeves across her eyes, refusing to sell us anything. It was a real shame. Her brother made great food. Soon after, our companies relocated, and we found new places to eat, but none as good as that little wooden stand in the middle of a paved parking lot. We happened to drive in that area a few years later, and the stand was gone.)
Anyway, we brought the Sonic food home, laid bath towels across our bed (our TV is in the bedroom), popped in the first video, Glass Houses, and pulled all our food out of the bags.
The cats jumped up on the bed, slowly shuffling forward on four paws towards our food like the living dead.
I tore the foot long foil wrapper off the top of my chili dog, baring the hot, wet delight within, poured a can of Coke into the tall, ice-filled glass on my bed table. Ahhh.
The VCR shut down.
I got out of bed, pressed the Play button. The VCR came to life, made a sinister whirring sound, shut down. Click. The front display panel went dark.
We tried another tape, Moulin Rouge. Comes to life, whirr, click, darkness.
Tried Urbania. Life, whirr, click, fuck.
We had a small TV/VCR combination we bought a month or so ago. We dragged that down from my study, put it on a table in front of our large screen TV, watching the videos on a seven inch screen. We had a great time, anyway.
Later that evening, we pulled out a stack of Consumer Reports, reading up on VCRs. Both of us were stunned to find out you can now buy a VCR, a good one, for about $100. They're no longer the exotic machinery they used to be. Now they're like calculators. Pretty soon, they'll be giving them away for free. They'll come in the mail, in oversized envelopes with promotional videotapes for exercise machines.
One day years ago I was fast-forwarding through some videotape Mary and I shot outdoors, to get to a particular scene on the tape, and in watching the speeded-up movements of the people on the tape I realized that I could more easily discern the dynamics of their relationship at this faster speed than I could at 'real' speed.
For example, at real speed, all I saw was two people sitting on a bench, talking to a third person. But speeded-up, I saw how one of the two people would keep leaning forward towards the third person, and in that way, dominating the conversation. If the tape hadn't been playing at a faster than normal speed, I never would have picked-up on the leanings-forward. The more tapes I watched at high speed, the easier it was to see visual cues to a relationship. Which one sits immobile, which one keeps touching a knee or a shoulder? Which one keeps looking at the other before talking? Which one folds their arms when the other talks? When a tape is speeded-up, and perhaps in part because there isn't any sound, you see recurring examples of body language you wouldn't notice otherwise, because too long a time lapses between occurrences in real time. In real time, we forget the instances before they repeat, and therefore don't see the pattern they form.
Doing something artificial, in this case playing a videotape of a conversation at high speed, can reveal a truth otherwise unnoticed. It's often through artificiality, or some other discombobulation of our senses, that we see a truth. The method has been used in poetry for centuries, where the artificiality of requiring two lines to rhyme has forced poets to find a connection between two words, merely on the basis that they rhyme, that might never have been otherwise discovered. William S. Burroughs introduced artificiality into the creative process in a different way, using what he called his 'cut-up technique'. He'd write a page of fiction, cut up the page into single words, then toss all the words into the air, putting them back together into fresh, random patterns to see if the new sentences made sense. Sometimes, he'd also cut up a page of someone else's text, a page from Shakespeare, an ad for a car, instructions from a technical manual, etc., mix all the words together, then see what new patterns emerged when all the disparate page elements were tossed in the air. He produced some beautiful, blue sentences that way, and also believed some of what he came up with through this randomness foretold the future. In the book The Job (Grove Press, 1974), a series of interviews with Daniel Odier, as one example of many, Burroughs talks of cutting-up J. Paul Getty's words as they appeared in Time and Tide, coming up with the phrase, 'It's a bad thing to sue your own father'. Three years later, Getty was sued by his son.
A reasonable reaction to that serendipity (and certainly my own reaction, since I'm a reasonable guy), is that even though that particular combination of words produced by that cut-up matches what happened in the future, there were probably dozens, or perhaps even hundreds, of other cut-ups that made no sense, or if they made sense, didn't portend.
It's a little like fortune-telling. The fortune teller gives you a hundred events that are going to occur in your future, and one or two of them, rather specific, actually do occur. Did she actually see your future? Or just give out so many events, one or two were bound to occur?
Because nowadays we put everything into a scientific context, where nothing is seen as being true unless it can be reliably duplicated in unaffiliated laboratories, we tend not to believe anything that cannot be dispassionately confirmed by science. This is the great power of science. Its objectivity. It's why we've advanced as far as we have. But it is also the great weakness of science, because science has chosen to exclude from its studies anything that cannot be examined in a test tube. Is there life after death? Can someone have an out-of-body experience? Are UFO's real? Is telekinesis real? Is there a God? Science rejects all of these ideas, outside of occasional half-hearted attempts, meant mostly to debunk, because it cannot examine them. But simply because science, using its self-limiting protocols, cannot examine a phenomenon, does not mean that phenomenon does not exist.
That's the great flaw in our unquestioning acceptance of science (and I speak as someone who is still as passionate about science as any twelve-year-old). Science cannot tell us the Truth. Science merely tells us certain minor truths. Boiling points. Distances between stars. Why we perceive yellow as we do.
As has been said elsewhere, science is good at telling us how. It's not good at all at telling us why. Can you fully understand a rose merely by learning its growing habit, and chemical composition? Or do you also need poetry?
Because ultimately, science is just a toe in the water (That's a terrible pun, but I couldn't resist. "TOE" stands for "Theory of Everything", the ever-elusive, all-inclusive theory scientists have been searching for, for decades, which would explain everything. Each prior TOE they've agreed upon, and given different, grand-sounding names to, has turned out to be not as definitive as originally thought. Right now, scientists are excited about superstring theory (the idea that the essential components of the Universe are tiny loops of vibrating string or membrane that exist in ten dimensions.) Before too long, there'll be an announcement that with superstring theory, we have now solved the riddle of the Universe. A few years later, there'll be a smaller announcement that actually, we realize we left out a few parts (the last TOE, it was gravity). Brace yourself over the years for periodic announcements of the discovery of The Return of Theory of Everything, The Bride of Theory of Everything, and Abbot and Costello Meet Theory of Everything).
When Burroughs comes across knowledge from the future in some of his cut-ups, or the fortune teller does get one or two predictions right, our natural reaction is to dismiss this evidence as false, because we don't want to appear foolish. We don't want to be 'tricked' by areas of knowledge that have been discredited by science. We'd much rather be tricked by science itself, with its reassuring tunnel vision. It's much more respectable.
It's certainly more respectable than keeping an open mind as to whether or not the Loch Ness monster exists, or the Yeti, or Sasquatch, or all the other creatures that have been sighted through the years. Professional debunkers within the scientific community seem to consider it their sacred duty to assure us the world is much less interesting and magical than it seems to be. Their ultimate goal appears to be sterility.
The same held true in 1847, when Thomas Savage and Jeffries Wyman presented a paper to the Boston Society of Natural History suggesting that monkeys nearly as large as a man existed. I'll let you guess what reaction they got. Despite all the reports of sightings of these creatures, ridiculed by the scientific world, it was not until 1902, only a hundred years ago, when the German army officer Captain Oscar Von Beringe actually shot two of them, that we finally realized how wrong science had been, and that gorillas actually do exist.
Another area of experience that has not been explored by science is that of coincidence.
Mary and I were both married to other people when we met. We had an extramarital affair with each other, full of assignations in motels, secret sideways looks, and pushing each other against the nearest wall, then divorced our spouses and married each other. At one point in our living together, waiting for the divorce papers to go through (we represented ourselves in the divorce hearings, rather than hire lawyers we couldn't afford, and that's a whole other comical story), we sold the wedding rings from our first marriage. They had no sentimental meaning to us, and we needed the money.
Years later, while boxing up our stuff to move across country, we came across the receipts from the sale of those wedding rings. We got married January 19, 1981. It turns out we sold our old wedding rings precisely one year earlier, January 19, 1980. We had no idea at the time we sold the rings from our first marriages of when we ourselves would get married. Coincidence? Or something else?
We got our cat, Elf, November 30, 1990. That's the day we took her home. Precisely one decade later, November 30, 2000, she died. Again, is that just a coincidence, or is it a hand pointing towards a pattern?
The Link of the Week this column discusses another type of deliberate discombobulation of how we view reality, backwards-talking. Talking backwards, of course, has been with us for decades. Rock groups have been using it for years, and it was employed by David Lynch for the dwarf in Twin Peaks. One of the most effective recent utilizations of it has been by Canadian artist Jocelyn Pook, who on her album Flood, which I heartily recommend, recorded backwards singing for her track Masked Ball. The track so impressed Stanley Kubrick he used it in his under-appreciated final movie, Eyes Wide Shut, in the circle of women scene in the mansion of masked party-goers.
On his site Reverse Speech, David John Oates discusses all aspects of backwards talking, including audio examples of reversed speech from children and politicians. The site also sells a reverse speech machine. I haven't bought one, because if I did, it'd probably break.
Last week's Lately gave statistics for SENTENCE for the year 2001. Some of you asked how popular SENTENCE is compared to other sites. I didn't have a clue. Google, as of this writing, lists 2,073,418,204 sites they've indexed, a total which also looks like the number of hamburgers McDonalds has sold. I figured my site was somewhere near the middle, about 1,000,000,000.
Then out of the blue, yesterday, Friday, I received a report from TrafficRanking, an organization that monitors the top 200,000 websites on the Internet. They said ralphrobertmoore.com was ranked 163,061 out of all 2,000,000,000+ sites on the Web.