Mumford: The Road Through Magic (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

The Fountain of Youth
The Fountain of Youth

Between fantasy and science is magic. Magicians were necessary to reach science, as they were the first to both believe in marvels as well as seek to “work them”. It’s difficult to define precisely where magic ends and science begins, but two unscientific qualities of magic are: “secrets and mystifications” and “a certain impatience for results.” Regarding the latter, fraudulent acts of magic were commonplace amongst alchemists of the 1500s, (as is sometimes the case amongst scientists today) for the sake of achieving immediate results. But, what the alchemists and magicians could be thanked for is working with their hands, in their laboratories, with real tools and real substances, and most of all, on demonstration. The alchemists, magicians, and early scientists lacked systems. “As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology: it was chiefly a lack of direction that was fantastic: the difficulty was not in using the instruments but in finding a field where it could be applied and finding the right system for applying it.”

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Von Neumann: The Brain: The Problem of Memory within the Nervous System (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

firebrainMost likely, the nervous system contains one or more memory organs. We don’t know what or where they are any more so than did the Greeks, who believed it was in the diaphragm. We just know that if it exists, then it must have a great capacity.

In a computing machine, memory size can be quantified. It has a maximum capacity, which can be expressed in bits. A memory that can hold a thousand letters has a capacity of 6,450 bits, for example.

How much? How much!?!?!?! Assuming a 60 year human lifespan, a bunch of neurons, each able to receive 14 distinct digital impressions per second, and that we never truly forget things—we just focus away from them–lands us at around 35 million terabytes of data stored in the brain (aka 2.9 billion iPhones).

What is the physical embodiment of memory? One proposal is that it’s the variability of stimulation criteria—that is, the threshold of stimulation changes depending on frequency of the cell’s use. Another proposal is based on distribution of axons connecting cells—in disuse, an axon becomes ineffective over time, while in frequent use, a stimulation is facilitated by a lower threshold over a given path. Another proposal is genetic memory—chromosomes and their genes have memory elements, so perhaps this is the case in an expanded sense. There are many other suggestions also.

“Systems of nerve cells, which stimulate each other in various possible cyclical ways, also constitute memories”—this would go hand-in-hand with the “strange loops” of Gödel, Escher Bach. Likewise, vacuums-tube machines can do the same via “flip-flops”.

But we have good reason to believe that the active organs do not function also as the memory organs. That’s how early computers (the ENIAC) began, with small memory components, and with time memory components have become larger and “technologically entirely different” than active organs.

Mumford: The Obstacle of Animism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine
Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine

While the natural world came as a great inspiration for technology (hornets nests: paper; rolling logs: wheels; lungs: bellows), technological development could only proceed slowly until the machine could be dissociated from living things. Airplanes were unsuccessful so long as they were designed to have bird (Leonardo da Vinci) or bat (Clement Ader) wings, bodies, and motion; Giovanni Branca’s human-shaped steam-engine was a nonstarter. In the meantime, circular motion, which we find infinitely useful, is only rarely seen in nature—perhaps most often by humans dancing. Dissociating life from actions resulted in the arm becoming a crane, firelight becoming electric light, human and animal work becoming mechanical work.

God, as clockmaker, had created and set an orderly world. If the world was nothing but God’s creation, wrapped in symbolism, and the Church the only path to the absolute, then there was no place for mechanical understanding or development unless Earth and Heavens could be divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that division became clear—there, the Heavens and the soul of man, and here, the earth. But even the monastery may be considered mechanical: its sterile environment, separate from the earthly world, temptations removed, strict rules and minimized irregularity as the self is replaced by the collective. A machine. And like a machine, it was “incapable of self-perpetuation except by renewal from without.” Hence, a great number of scientific discoveries came from monks. Further, Christianity’s teachings that the body is sinful, vile, and corrupt, to be mortified and subdued, meant that rather than celebrate the body, as pagans once did (gigantic symbols of fertility, etc.), it would be reasonable to move away from the body and toward the machine. Even as the Church would declare machines the work of the Devil, it “was creating the Devil’s disciples.”
The machine came about most quickly wherever the body was destroyed: monasteries, mines, and battlefields. It came about more slowly in places that gave life: agriculture.

Mumford: From Fable to Fact (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

fact-checking“‘In the Middle Ages,’ as Emile Male said, ‘the idea of a thing which a man formed for himself was always more real than the actual thing itself, and we see why these mystical centuries had no conception of what men now call science. The study of things for their own sake held no meaning for the thoughtful man. . . . The task for the student of nature was to discern the eternal truth that God would have each thing express.’”
“How far could the mind go in [science] as long as the mystic numbers three and four and seven and nine and twelve filled every relation with an allegorical significance.”
“Unfortunately, the medieval habit of separating the soul of man from the life of the material world persisted, though the theology that supported it was weakened; for as soon as the procedure of exploration was definitely outlined in the philosophy and mechanics of the seventeenth century man himself was excluded from the picture. Technics perhaps temporarily profited by this exclusion; but in the long run the result was to prove unfortunate. In attempting to seize power man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to eliminate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power.”

Mumford: The Influence of Capitalism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

monopolyThe “romanticism of numbers” directly led to the rise of capitalism, already well-structured by the 1300s, and modern (double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange, letters of credit, speculation in ‘futures’) by the 1500s. The result: abstraction and calculation became part of the everyday lives of city people. Business became more abstract, concerned with non-commodities, imaginary futures, and hypothetical gains. Marx: “money does not disclose what has been transformed into it”–everything can be bought and sold. Money is the only thing one can acquire without limit. Money both grew out of a need through trade, as well as promoted increased trade. The continual and fast-paced development of machines can be attributed to the lure of commercial profit.

Von Neumann: The Computer: Characteristics of Modern Digital Machines (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

computerbrainComprises “active” and “memory” organs (he’s including “input” and “output” as part of “memory).

Active organs: perform basic logical actions, sense coincidences and anticoincidences, and combine stimuli, regenerate pulses to maintain pulse shapes and timing via amplification of the signals.

These functions were performed by (in historical succession): relays, tubes, crystal diodes, ferromagnetic cores, transistors, or by combinations of those.

A modern machine will contain 3,000-30,000 active organs, of which 300-2,000 are dedicated to arithmetic, and 200-2,000 to memory. Memory organs require further organs to service and administer them—the memory parts of the machine being around 50% of the whole machine.

Memory organs are classed by their “access time”—the time to store a number, removing the number previously stored, and the time to ‘repeat’ the number upon ‘questioning’ (that is, write/read times, respectively). To classify the speed, you could either take the larger of those two times, or the average of them. If the access time doesn’t depend on the memory address, it is called “random access” (RAM).

Memory registers can be built of active organs—which, while fastest, are also most expensive (i.e,. built out of vacuum tubes). Thus, for large-memory operations, it’s cost-prohibitive. Previously, relays were used as the active organs, and relay registers were used as the main form of memory.

It is possible, however, to reduce the required memory to solve a problem by considering not the total numbers needed in memory, but the minimum needed in memory at any given time. And if that can be determined, numbers can be distributed between faster memory, and slower memory, based on when they are needed—that is, perhaps all the numbers can be stored on the slower memory, while the necessary numbers of the moment are stored on the faster memory. I assume this is how computers now function—everything is stored on the hard drive, while the absolutely necessary things to the current operations are stored in the RAM.

Magnetic drums and tapes are currently (1950s) in use, while magnetic discs are being explored (and now, 2015, becoming obsolete in favor of SSDs).

Inputs are punched cards or paper tapes, outputs are printed or punched paper—that is, means for the machine to communicate with the outside world.

Words are saved directly to named numerical addresses within the memory of the machine—the address is never ambiguous.

Samuel Fuller: The Naked Kiss (1964)

naked kissIt’s been a while since I really talked out of my ass. Let’s do this!

So–briefly, I dedicated my life to filmmaking. I made one film, which was enough to teach me I never wanted to make another one ever again—because filmmaking involves working with other people, and other people suck—specifically, other people who write uninspired, faux-gritty, noir-inspired scripts that can only be read as vehicles for overacting. Me? I worshipped Godard and Truffaut’s early work—particularly Breathless with its self-referential film noir qualities…so you can guess how our relationship played out. (I cut him out of production by keeping him out of the loop).

Anyway, I had this 40-minute masterpiece, back when I was confident enough to sneak into dirty hotel rooms and scream at my actors (complete strangers) “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NUDITY?” “OF COURSE YOU NEED TO PISS ON CAMERA INTO THE BATHTUB—AND YOU’RE DRINKING BEERS UNTIL YOU CAN SQUEEZE SOMETHING OUT!” I miss being confident and always right. Anyway, my masterpiece got edited down by the now-back-in-the-loop producer to, like, 10 minutes of crap since I wouldn’t use his neo-noir script, and the resulting crap won 4th place in a competition for grad students (I was all of 18 years old)—which, when I was informed of this on the last day of class, resulted in me cussing out the class for being such idiots, and quitting the film department.

One of the things we used to study was self-reflective films—and it all came rushing back to me when I watched Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. The self-reflective scene? When the over-acting cop undergoes an unexpected change of heart and acting ability, and tells the prostitute that the film can never end unless she stops over-acting also…in not so many words. She tones it down, the little girl confesses, and the movie ends.

Is it noir? I guess so. Fuller was associated with Fritz Lang at least as far back as the 1940s, removing us to the theatrical roots of German expressionism, so to some extent making the works of Fuller quintessentially pure noir.

Here’s the bottom line—I think Fuller’s Naked Kiss is pure schlock. Considering it from a collegiate standpoint, we’d probably focus in on undercurrent of childhood/motherhood/where babies come from:

  • ex-prostitute
  • begins film bald like a newborn baby
  • ends up sharing a room with a man—who happens to just be a sewing mannequin
  • becomes assistant in hospital for disabled children
  • weeps when she looks at a baby
  • pays her friend to skip town and secretly have her baby rather than abort it
  • reveals that she’s unable to have children
  • falls in love with guy over their shared ability to quote Lord Byron—(whose reputation for naughty love was pretty great, although Shelley might be more fitting since he killed more of his own children)
  • accidentally gets engaged to a child molester
  • navigates out of jail with the help of a pregnant woman and a molested child

The moral ambiguity results from the grandson of the town’s founder, the most popular guy in town, being a child molester; and the town’s other leading citizen, its favorite police officer, basically screwing every young woman that shows up in town before getting them jobs at his favorite brothel. And yet, he still approaches justice with a fair hand, which is what saves the heroine’s life. As she leaves the jail, she is surrounded by hundreds of the town’s mothers—supposedly to celebrate her saving the town’s children. They look like a lynch mob. We’d ultimately conclude that there’s some loss of innocence in America.

Where did noir come from? A combination of the crime literature popularized during the Depression—potentially before, as Richard Wright discusses his obsession with it in his boyhood (Black Boy)—as well as the visual techniques of German / Weimar Republic theater and cinema. It’s best known, though, as a 1940s and 50s American phenomenon, whether B-films or Humphrey Bogarts.

For this reason, I think the origins are perhaps most likely the response of German artists to the experience of WWI. French impressionist cinema bears many of the same hallmarks—subjectivity, hard lighting, disjointed narratives, a psychological focus. And whether it’s a nationalist backlash to Hollywood or picking up where the avant-garde left off, the result is a collective European reset on a post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, a world in which the horrors of the other, of technologically backwards villages in one’s own nation, of vampires and phantom carriages, of one’s unresolved childhood sexual urges are no longer what strikes fear in the hearts of the masses, the bourgeoisie, or even the intelligentsia. Now that everyone’s been to the same trenches, learned to fight under common banners, the same nightmares strike all survivors—yet, a common film language is inadequate to speak to this new, common reality.

The result, rather, is a common film language that rejoices in an off-kilter visual and narrative representation of what previously made sense. Why did it make sense previously? Because world history was a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order—for instance, turning India into a modern nation, Africa divided up into modern nations, the Middle East into modern nations—chaos to order, a notion that may have died in art, but certainly not in politics.

The old language was of love, folk tales, comedy—the new language is one of complexity, and mostly, one of darkness. Every viewer sees a different image on the screen in the distorted lenses, in the shadows, in the disorienting camera angles, and further, every viewer understands a different story, and at different rates. For once, it was possible to leave the theatre without a clue as to what’s transpired on-screen!

This was the generation that was forced out of an increasingly elegant universe into one in which morality held no bearing, where every man had spent time with prostitutes, murdered other innocent men, seen his closest friends tortured to death by that same science meant to help us live in health and happiness forever.

So, the generation who followed—they weren’t the first. What they inherited was a ready-made film language, as well as a world that everyone could agree was no longer particularly enlightened.

And that’s where I see American film noir: situationally post-modern, but not yet developed beyond a modernist language that doesn’t translate.

Schlock!

Mumford: The Monastery and the Clock (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

water-clock“The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age”

The clock “is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief in common human experience: throughout the year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between day and night steadily change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmers measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion, but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time—what Bergson calls duration—is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction—through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death—and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.”

Mumford: Machines, Utilities, and ‘The Machine’ (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

technics1There are physiological processes, like growing hair in response to the cold. Then there are things that, rather, change the environment—tools and machines. Tools are flexible in function—a knife can be used to cut, shave, carve, etc. Whereas machines are inflexible in function—a drill can only drill.

Tools, however, function as extensions of the person who manipulates them. It takes considerable effort and skill to use a hammer properly, whereas regardless of how complicated a machine is, it requires little relative effort or skill to use (for instance, in driving a car, by pushing your foot down, you cause a number of processes to take place, and, ultimately, the wheels to turn and move the heavy car automatically).

In between these two, tool, and machine, is the machine-tool, which blurs the line between the human extension and the automatic—say, an electric handheld drill, which involves a number of processes effected only by pushing a button, and is run by electricity, yet still requires considerable skill to use, as it acts like an extension of the person.

Lastly, utensils and utilities, from baskets to kilns to roads, are important technological objects in the development of the modern environment.

Durant: Our Oriental Heritage (notes on religion)

Notes on Religion:

Why is there existence? Not the meaning of life, or why is there life—I could even accept that as an accident, and not why is there earth, but why is there space or time or matter or energy? How can it possibly be that out of nothing there is something? Why isn’t it all just nothing?

Primitive man never saw the existence of old age—death was always unnatural, and thus it was feared because it was horrible, and the gods must be responsible for causing it. That’s the flaw in our ideas—that if we could avert all those horrible unnatural deaths that we could possibly live forever. When the truth is that the horrible deaths prevent us from lasting too long, assist in the rapid turnover the species needs. Confidence is in lasting forever, somehow.

moon —> Latin ‘mensis’ and Greek ‘men’
month
menstruate —> Latin ‘menses’

Totem worship. In early Judaism, pigs. In early Christianity, doves, lambs, fish. Totems tabu, and eating of them, if allowed at all, only in ritual contexts. The Gallas of Abyssinia worshiped fish, and ate them ritually, saying they could feel the spirit moving inside them when they did—and Christian missionaries were thereby shocked at the similarity to Mass, in which one worships the god and then eats him.

The worship of the dead, as we see them in our dreams, thus the worship of powerful men particularly, once they are dead. As the worship of saints in Catholicism.