Machine That Made Us? Really?

DATELINE: Gutenberg, Not McLuhan 

Docudrama re-enactment from 1880s, not real scene.

A quaint British documentary made over a dozen years ago thrusts the premise at us that the Gutenberg Press is the most important invention of civilization. Hmm, we are skeptical as usual.

As host and presenter Stephen Fry notes, it may be more important than the car, the computer, or other accoutrements of the latest centuries. The little one-hour film The Machine That Made Us never mentions Marshall McLuhan, which is a shame.

Fry is a bibliophile, which is to say he loves books, though that is hardly historical or cultural expertise. He is also an excellent actor and charming as  host for a travelogue and investigation into Johannes Gutenberg and his invention.

There are no pictures or illos of Gutenberg or his press. One early image from Albrecht Durer of a press is 50 years later. So, all pictures and lithographs are actually re-enactments imagined, just like in today’s so-called documentaries.

There are those, however, who’d point out that books are fading fast. That includes authors who find that their sales are now comprised mostly of e-books. We print out of nostalgia for the most part.

Nobody really wants dust-collecting libraries in their homes or even in their universities. When Fry walks down miles of stacks of books, we think the cost of protecting them (miles and miles of books) is staggering. You could probably fit them all in a file cabinet of Kindles.

Fry is no technocrat—and he leaves the making of an original press to a woodworker, and the making of the actual letters to another metallurgist. Since it would take a few years to make one page of letters to print up a Bible, they send to America for pre-made, and use their one “E” in the print block.

Vellum too would mean the death of hundreds of cows, so paper is made the old-fashioned way of 1439 and it is cloth bits into pulp. You make Bible pages between the Black Death that gripped your pressings with old clothes.

There are only a handful of the original Bibles left from Guttenberg’s endeavor—and he never made money from publishing. That fell to his creditors. And, the beautiful illustrations in the margins were always hand-done anyhow.

It is fascinating to watch, but a tad dull—and we never see them actually bind a book or stich it together. When Fry thumbs through one of the surviving books in cotton gloves, you fear he might sneeze on the book and let water vapor take its course.

Biggest Bit Player in 20th Century!

DATELINE: Changing the World

 Shannon.

Imagine being one of the most important people to live in the 20th century and being unknown!

This documentary teases us with the notion that we are remiss to have missed Claude E. Shannon, the greatest inventor/scientist of the 20thcentury. He is called The Bit Player because he is the man who created ‘the bit” as part of the first “thinking machine.”

Yes. He’s right up there with Einstein, though no one has given him the time of day. His theoretics led to the iPhone, email, and all the other unquestioned intrusions into life. He rode a unicycle and juggled, and some thought he was a walking, breathing, thinking carnival barker.

Years ago we used to drive past his home in Winchester, Massachusetts, all the time, but only now do we recognize that a great man lived in that distinctive house. Had we known, we might have dropped in as unannounced as a text message from a stranger.

Eclectic, poetic, he was all you would never think was a scientist. He once invented a flaming trumpet for his high-school age son who was in a marching-band.

Growing up in the Midwest, he came to MIT after writing a stunning Master’s Thesis at age 21, years before Alan Turing’s seminal work. Shannon created codes, and in particular he made the binary code, and his two-number system meant that 1+1=1.  Uh-oh, that meant you were a nutcase in 1930.

Idiosyncratic sometimes makes you an academic pariah, but many of Shannon’s ideas were borderline science fiction and considered useless. If there was no personal PC, how could they be implemented or pragmatic?

How much call was there for a calculator that worked in Roman numerals? He loved to tinker and to let his mind wander the byways of opportunity, much like his pioneer grandfather.

When he spent a year at Princeton, Shannon used to wave every morning at Einstein as the genius walked to Princeton, but is vague about their meeting and interactions. He said he met Einstein but Einstein likely had no memory of meeting him.

It is characteristic of oddity in this biographical story.

With much derived from a filmed interview he gave late in life, we have evidence of a vibrant, ageless thinker that displays the power that must have been thwarted all too often in the earlier days of the 20thcentury.

This man gave Marshall McLuhan all the war and peace in the global village that he could muster. It’s always delightful to meet the most important people you never knew existed.

 

 

 

 

Swan Dive on Trump

DATELINE: Wile E. Coyote with Orange Hair?

Pelosi Bronx cheer.jpeg Pelosi’s Bronx Cheer?

When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi applauded President Trump on finishing his epic State of the Union with 82 minutes of cram-packed disinformation, she added something to the lexicon of American culture.

We used to have the Bronx Cheer, a rather crude and effective means of making its recipient know how low he has fallen.

You cannot smell a Bronx Cheer, only hear it. You cannot smell a Pelosi clapback, but its visual image will resonate on Twitter and social media forever.

Now, when you want to skewer a blowhard, you point the middle fingers in your pointed hands and make little slaps like a jaw opening and closing on a fool on the hill’s neck.

Among hundreds of political observers—and Trump himself—and countless viewers and re-watching viewers, Mrs. Pelosi stuck it to Trump who had to stand there and take it. His mendacious speechifying was over. Now he had to look like the man with egg on his face or yellow feathers in his mouth. However, the canary just ate him.

Speaker Pelosi looked like Tweety Pie, sitting in the gilded cage, and about to tell us that, indeed, she saw “a Putty Tat.” Yes, indeed, like Sylvester, Mr. Trump just was given his quota of suffering succotash.

If she had been the Road Runner, she would have stuck out her tongue and beeped at him before dashing off and leaving the man and his moment conjoined forever as the biggest damned fool in history.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and the priceless expression of the Speaker is visible, and only the back of a head of fake hair comes from the Trump vantage.

If you believe in emblematic moments, you know that Marshall McLuhan is laughing somewhere in the universe.