The Laboratorium
November 2005

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He Wasn’t Just Talking About Television

Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.

—Edward R. Murrow, address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Chicago, October 15, 1958

Centuries of Foresight

In the forest of Tronçais in the département of the allier in France, there are still standing oak trees which Colbert had planted in 1670 with a view to providing solid masts for the French fleet from the nineteenth century on. Colbert had thought of everything except the steamship.

—Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce, p. 240

A large and rich Cambridge college, which has already survived 500 years and has every intention of surviving another 500, recently interviewed four sets of investment advisors. Each group was asked what they considered “long-term” to mean. Three said five years and the fourth said three days.

—T.W. Körner, The Pleasures of Counting, p. 97

(Help! I cannot locate the Körner quotation about the tree planted simultaneously with the felling of another, with the intention that it be available centuries later when the roofbeam made from its predecessor wore out. It would also go quite well with the Braudel line. Anyone with a copy of Körner who can track it down will incur my gratitude. Ben? You’ve only had my copy on loan for five years now …)

UPDATE: Yes, the story is told by Danny Hillis, who got it from Stewart Brand, who got it from Gregory Bateson. But none of their formulations seem to be quite the formulation I remember. I was willing to swear that Körner put it particularly pithily. Still looking …

I Will Now Tell You

But I have another idea! A much better one! An idea which is exciting and fantastic! To tell you the truth, I’ve been secretly planning to tell it to you all along! What is this idea? I will now tell you.

—Raymond M. Smullyan, The Tao is Silent, p. 26

This Story is False

“Clementine,” the citrus fruit, received its name through an interesting linguistic crossover. The old nursery rhyme “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements” proved irresistable to the three London-born English citrus botanists who bred the first clementines. The familial connection between clementines and oranges is clear enough, but, linguists conjecture, “oranges” was only added to the phrase to provide a counterpart for the “lemons” that rhymed with the “Clements” that gave clementines their name.

The iPod of Babel

I have a lot of film music on my iPod. Film music has a number of important characteristics, to wit:

ONE. Most film music has no lyrics.

(2) Many composers have a roughly consistent sound from film to film.

Third. Many scores contain a great many tracks per CD. Twenty or more is not at all uncommon.

Thus, my iPod contains a great many tracks that I can recognize as being by a particular composer but can’t identify with more specificity. I’m doing well if I can identify the film from hearing the music. If I hear a track in shuffle mode and can’t place it, I just glance at the display screen. Except that there are times when I can’t. You see, I listen most to Pinky (what else is white and unpredictable?) while I’m driving.

While I could in theory go back later and go back through the previously-played songs, more times than not, while trying to skip ahead songs that I don’t care to listen to (quiet string passages don’t come through well at all over the roar of the road), I manage to get lost in the menu system somewhere. (I am, after all, working it one-handed without looking at it.) That means to get the music back, I need to navigate back up to the top level and start it on song-shuffle again. Which conveniently overrides the old shuffled order.

Result: instant amnesia. Do you understand how long it would take to hear the track again on pure shuffle? The mind-boggling quantity of music on one of these things really does mean you’re not going to hear the same particular cut again anytime soon. It’s a little disconcerting that the music is right there and yet there’s no easy way to get it back.

UPDATE: Steven points me to the “Recently Played” playlist. Yep, I guess that settles it. Plus one for practicality, minus one for the poetic sense of loss.


Sequin, noun: a small and shiny ornamental disc, typically made of plastic. From the Italian zecchino (literally “little mint”), one of a number of species of small gold coins minted in the Italian city-states.


Treadmill, noun: an engine powered by the force of a person’s walking gait (hence “tread”), typically in the form of a large wheel or a belt on rollers. Although modern treadmills are used principally as exercise devices, historically the power they generated was used to grind grain (hence “mill”).