Sunday In The Silly Season

Kage Baker was big on lists. She loved the idea – both philosophical and neurological – of “permanent portable memory.”

That’s often put forward as one the real paradigms of human advancement, the concept of maintaining memories outside of our heads and in permanent form .Books, scrolls, clay and wax blocks, reindeer shoulder blades recording the days between someone’s menstrual periods – man, I bet that was  been an important one!

It’s what lets everyone remember Gramma’s beer recipe, and the stories of the gods, and whose great-grandparents were related. It prevents bad cooking, culture loss and inbred babies. It assures history – hell, it creates history, as one can argue that history unrecalled in not really history, just blips in the local quantum state that have spread out in undifferentiated ripples. It takes recorded lore to tell us why it’s vital that we all wear red ribbons in our hair, and should bash the hell out of those impious buggers wearing blue ones.

It’s all rather New Age fuzziness, described so glibly, but it really does matter. Permanent portable memories have given us paintings on cave walls, libraries, king lists, incontrovertible tax records, the revealed word of Mumbo Jumbo, God of the Jungle; or whoever is really running this show. Most of the study of the past consists of careful examination of someone else’s lists. If you do dig up something original, then you make the best lists about it that you can and everyone studies those.

We don’t keep our memories entirely in our heads. It’s why they are so huge and last so long (the memories, I mean. But also the heads …) It’s how we read minds, time travel, walk through walls. It is one of THE Great Magics of our species. Mine, anyway. I’m not arbitrarily assigning species to anyone else. But there is plenty of evidence that other clever animals around here pass on memories verbally to their kids, as well. That means the dolphin version of Hildegard of Bingen doesn’t have to re-invent that nose-protecting sponge technology every generation; the unique technique used by Australian bottlenosed dolphins while foraging on overly-crunchy sea floors. And, BTW, it is used almost exclusively by females, and is passed on from mother to daughter … like the routes elephant matriarchs use between water sources.

Among humans, everyone makes lists and passes them on. “How To” is the largest section in our cultural library. And Kage loved to pore over the multitudinous volumes on the shelves, committing someone else’s memory to her own and getting a glimpse of what mattered one day 10,000 miles and 10,000 years away. If she didn’t have time to read as much as she wanted to, she assigned it to me and then we’d brainstorm over it – trading details of the evolution of knitting with ways to preserve paper, or stone-knapping for how to cook eels.

If you didn’t learn enough stuff at your mother’s knee, I strongly recommend your sister’s dining room table. Believe me, it works.

I wandered into this meditation while making my morning pilgrimage through the groves of the Internet. First thing in the morning is when I check science sites, weird news aggregators, library indices and Tables of Contents. Coffee and cold pizza and plums to hand, I wander the brink of the Pierian Spring and read the graffiti left there overnight; I learn a lot, doing that every day, and it keeps the doors of my mind lubricated and swinging, too. Very useful habit, and it gives one something to do while eating breakfast.

It’s not a day for moving around much, here. The unnatural humidity has once again risen over Los Angeles, and we are covered in an invisible warm sea. The wind is rising, though, and by sunset my brain will dry out enough for some real activity; until then, I’m amusing myself by looking over the shiny pebbles in that fabled Spring and meditating on the strange things we commit to immortality:

The Hubble Telescope has found a giant buckyball in space. At the same time, the US Congress has inexplicably (but not too surprisingly) cancelled the funds for Hubble’s upgraded successor. Neanderthals probably wore feathers. Some Chinese archeologist is claiming Archeopteryx was not a bird, but he’s got a good red-blooded Chinese critter that is. Horses don’t have the genes for albinism. Younger women have more children than old ones.

Astonishing stuff. Sometimes what is astonishing it that someone thought it was news in the first place, but that’s all right. No knowledge is useless, and we ought to examine our racial memory to check out what’s been added to it from time to time. Muggy summer Sunday are great for that.

I’m going off to eat more plums, and check out a report that someone has found a way to force squirrels to hibernate. Sounds like a great storage idea to me.

Tomorrow: The Silly Season Is Upon Us