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We Can Be Happy Underground

From the “Further Readings” section at the back of Paul Collin’s wonderful Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change The World:

There is one very simple way to see what Beach’s railway [19th century New York’s secret, unfinished pneumatic subway] looked like, and blown up far larger than any plate in this book could manage. Go to a Subway shop–the fast-food chain, you know, where you can buy a six-inch Cold Cut Trio?–and lo! Pasted upon the walls are pictures of Beach’s invention. Whoever was designing the chainwide decor for Subway simply clipped out a bunch of old public-domain illustrations of subways, including three that originally ran in Scientific American in the 1870s. Look for the pictures that depict an almost perfectly round (save for a slight groove in the bottom) brick-lined subway tunnel, and a rounded subway car interior. These are Beach’s own handpicked illustrations for what was to be an ultra-million-dollar venture. Graze pensively on your Baked Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips. Ponder the vagaries of ambition.

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The Day After

“See! Now! Our sentence is up.”

That’s the last line of the last page of the last issue of The Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s pop magic comic book master work. That final issue came out right around Y2K, but it’s set on the December solstice of what was then the freaky-sounding future year 2012. All this year, every time I heard somebody cracking wise about the Mayan Apocalypse, I thought, “Unless you’re an ancient Mayan, you’re stealing Grant Morrison’s bit.”

I bought and read every issue of The Invisibles as it came out from 1994 to 2000. It’s the only comic I’ve ever followed so religiously. It’s brilliant and fun and a bit of a mess and it meant the world to me. It worked its way into my life and rewired the way I saw things, which is pretty much what it was intended to do. Yes, it’s dated now, but so am I. I can’t be any more objective about it than I could be objective about my twenties.  Read more

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Auld is the Lang Syne

Telephone Robot, commission by Joe Alterio

I started blogging ten years ago tomorrow–January 1st, 2001–with a quote from Parappa the Rapper, a welcome to my newborn niece, and the default Blogger theme. I wasn’t a very good blogger, but in 2001, who was? I’d make all these little placeholder posts, with the idea of going back and finishing them later. Heh. The big wheel of life keeps turning, and unfinished blog posts, I have since learned, do not typically finish themselves.

My god, this thing we (unfortunately?) call blogging has changed so much in ten years. It’s enjoyed its edgy youth, its boom town gold rush days, and its decadent high baroque. Now, with the rise of blogging’s vapid, staccato children, the blog as medium seems to be settling into old, weird decrepitude. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself. We always do, don’t we, when we talk about the internet?

It is time, I think, for Old is the New New, at least in its current incarnation, to come to an end.  Read more

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Where Bat Ideas Come From

At the Bat-Computer

I’m enjoying Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and already thinking about which chunks I will cannibalize for my history of science and technology class next semester. Good Ideas brings together themes that Johnson has been developing for years: the networked nature of innovation, the ingenuity of cities, the power of thinking across disciplines and scales. It’s a great read, as ingenious and beautifully written as all his stuff, although its wider scope makes it, to my mind, a little breezier and more lightweight than, say, The Ghost Map, which remains my favorite of Johnson’s books. I want to say this gently, because I think Johnson is terrific, but there is a whiff of the airport bookstore, if you know what I mean, around this business of “good ideas” and how to have more of them. Good Ideas shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in a way Ghost Map or Emergence or Invention of Air do not: you too can harness Charles Darwin’s seven secrets of info-lution! That’s probably a plus for some readers, but it’s not really what I came for. Still. I’m only part way into the book, and I trust Johnson to take me someplace smart and unexpected and cool.

I like to read related things in tandem (that’s one of the seven secrets, sort of), so as a bit of a counterweight I’m also reading John Durham Peters’ 2004 essay “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’: A History of the Concept,” published in a collection called Toward a Political Economy of Culture. Johnson’s metaphors are more biological than economic–not a “marketplace” of ideas but a “coral reef”–but otherwise, Peters could have been talking about Johnson here:

Words are conceptual mausoleums, haunts at which the spirits of the dead continue their debates and threaten to possess the bodies of the unwary. Intellectual history can provide a selective exorcism … Taking the ‘marketplace’ as the central metaphor for public communication, as we will see, has divergent effects. It packs hefty semantic freight, suggesting that communication and economics are not only analogous but flourish when unregulated, that diversity is essential, and that exchange occurs in a “place” where people congregate and circulate, enter and exit at will. The term often wears the halo of what one might call the libertarian theodicy–the faith that ideas, if they are left to shift for themselves, will be diverse and truth will conquer error in the long run. It implies a rather disembodied vision of public communication, as if the politics of culture were governed by entities so Platonic as “ideas.”

Are all ideas good ones? Do The Origin of Species, a sexy new way to market music, and predicting the 9-11 attacks beforehand all come from the same place? Did Social Darwinism, CD packaging, and the 9-11 attacks themselves come from some different process?

All that aside, the real catalyst for this post was a throwaway reference in Good Ideas. Talking about Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine, Johnson writes:

For all its complexity, however, the Difference Engine was well within the adjacent possible of Victorian technology. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a steady stream of improvements to mechanical calculation, many of them building on Babbage’s architecture. … In 1884, an American inventor named William S. Burroughs founded the American Arithmometer Company to sell mass-produced calculators to businesses around the country. (The fortune generated by those machines would help fund his namesake grandson’s writing career, not to mention his drug habit, almost a century later.)

Did everybody else know about this? Digging into my old Suppressed Transmissions, I see Ken Hite mentioned Burroughs the elder back in 2002, damn his eyes. But there’s still crazy untapped hashpunk potential in the idea of “William S. Burroughs’ Difference Engine.” And get this: Wikipedia tells me that a Burroughs Corporation computer console appeared in the old Batman series as the Bat-Computer. Holy Dreamachine. I don’t know what’s weirder there: the Burroughs-Batman connection or that the Bat-Computer was a real computer. So. Conflate or combine the two William Burroughses and mix them up with William Gibson too. Posit a drug-fuelled information revolution in the late 19th century. Giant beetly arithmometers talking out of unpleasant looking orifices. Phallic zeppelins of Interzone. Predatory mugwumps stalking the back streets of Tangiers. And sometime in the surreal century that follows, the scion of the Burroughs family (along with youthful ward Allen Ginsberg) dons a cape and mask to rid his city of crime. To the Beatmobile!

See? Darwin’s seven secrets of evo-vation are working already.