From my earliest TV-watching years, I remember we had a movable antenna on the roof that you could orient based on which channel you wanted to watch. You had your pick of three or four channels, depending on your appetite for static and snow.
By the time we got cable TV, thereby enabling our local PBS affiliate, I was already past the Mister Rogers and Sesame Street years. But I was in the demographic sweet spot for The Electric Company. And because nothing ever goes away anymore, I now have the pleasure of sitting in front of YouTube with my daughter and dredging up my favorite bits of 1970s educational TV.
For example, I was trying to remember all the words to the Sign Song that starts off like this: I like fish food, you do too. Don’t look now your hair is blue. Doesn’t sound so clever, eh? Well, here it is. Judge for yourself.
Just you try not humming that later on today.
In fact, looking back years later, I’m amazed at the talent they drummed up for that show. Morgan Freeman was a regular on the show. And although I knew that Tom Lehrer wrote the LY song for The Electric Company, I was surprised to learn via YouTube that he actually wrote a handful of other tunes, including the Silent E and the charming N Apostrophe T number that I only just discovered.
It’s amusing to think that my daughter is watching this on a small screen with low quality video, just like I did in the 70s, only for her it’s a TCP/IP feed to a small corner of my computer monitor.
On the subject of libraries, Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson thus: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.”
What would Johnson make of the web? I think about this quote whenever I reflect on the fact that, to a fair approximation, all human knowledge is one Google search away. In other words, knowledge is of two kinds: that which we know, and that which we have the good sense to ask Google for. More succinctly, obscurity ain’t what it used to be. Obscurity is not the obscurity of the dusty book lost in the shadowy stacks. Obscurity is the obscurity of your inability to formulate a question in the first place. Once you can do that, there is no question about where to look.
This leads to a surprising conclusion. The more convenient the search, the more valuable the intrinsic knowledge. The distance between forming the question and finding the answer is vanishing. So relatively speaking, packing a lot of information into your head still pays. Take heart… that liberal arts education may pay off yet!
This all came to mind because of Tom Lehrer and my brother-in-law Joe. Joe sent me a link to some YouTube videos of Tom Lehrer performing songs of his that I know far too well. Did I want to see them? Of course I wanted to see them! I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to go looking for them before. Joe’s email nudged them “closer” to me, but really they were the same distance from me all along. Everything I want to know is right there, only I don’t yet know that I want to know it yet.
Earlier this summer I attended my twentieth college reunion. I had a good time. I always have a good time at reunions. Earlier in my reunion-attending career, I had some misgivings, but over time it’s gotten much easier to simply visit with friends and remember the good times. The people I remember as jerks, they keep coming to reunions too, but they get fatter and fainter and more forgettable with each year. Eventually I expect them to disappear altogether.
With age comes perspective. One thing I finally came to terms with at this reunion was my longtime affliction with a social disease. The disease, Python-Lehrer Tourette syndrome, is common among a certain male-dominated geek population. It involves having quasi-appropriate phrases from various Monty Python skits and movies spring to mind throughout the day. During quiescent phases, these phrases can be suppressed. But when surrounded by those sharing the diagnosis (as at my recent reunion), the urge to utter all manner of Pythonesque non sequiturs can be overwhelming. Python-Lehrer sufferers, incidentally, are differentiated from their Python Tourette cousins by their interstitial allusions to the Tom Lehrer musical canon. There is also a notable subset of this malady (as yet without official diagnostic designation) known as Grailolalia, in which the victim specializes only in phrases from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Grailians are fine people, but not terribly nuanced.
I don’t worry much about this problem, and I’ve long since given up apologizing for it. But it is impressive to consider the degree to which this particular comedy troupe dominates the brain space of people like me. I’ve known a few people with Firesign Theater disease, but it’s nothing like the vast spawn of Python-quoters. Why is that? I believe there is a Shakespearean completeness to the Python repertoire. All the comical-tragical-historical varieties of silliness are there. They were around for so long, and they brought such disciplined seriousness to their absurdity, that there truly is something quotable for almost every situation. Furthermore, their absurdity sometimes touches on the profound. To my mind, King Arthur’s argument with a peasant about the origins of Excalibur is the last word on confusing mythology with journalism and the sacred with the profane: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” Petty literalism contending with religious mania. That, in a nutshell, is the drama of our age.
Of course, none of this stops Python-Lehrer Tourette syndrome from being intensely irritating to friends and family.