Identity Crisis

Living in Boston can be a heady trip for a budding academic.  Even if you’re across the river from Harvard and MIT, it’s a city known for its education scene.  Like many who studied there, I never wanted to leave.  A fringe benefit of being a student of religion was that a short trip would take you to Peabody.  Why?  Peabody was home to CBD—Christian Book Distributors.  In their showroom they had rock-bottom prices for something theology students crave—books.  That was many years ago now, and over time CBD grew to be the largest distributor of Christian paraphernalia in the country.  In my mind they’ll always be associated with happy little trips that ended in armloads of reading.  What more could you want?

A story by Emily McFarlan Miller explains why the revered CBD is changing its name.  Cannabidiol, a legal derivative of cannabis, is popularly known as cbd.  Lots of things share initials, of course, but these are the days of the web, and an internet search for cbd now pushes the distributor (at least the book distributor) off the first page.  One thing we all know in this online universe is that you’ve got to be on the first page.  CBD’s decision might seem extreme—changing the name of the business to get back on the front page.  Despite the amusing aspects to this story, it emphasizes something of an ongoing jeremiad with me: the web has redefined reality.  Think about it this way: when a digital image is over-enlarged it pixellates.  That’s because it’s composed of minuscule squares of a single color.   When brought together in a pattern, they form images we recognize.  It their basis, however, they are squares.

The earth, however, is an orb.  The natural state of falling liquids—the principle behind the shot tower—is a sphere.  Now, spheres together in a closed space leave gaps—just look at a jar of marbles and you’ll see what I mean.  That’s the order of the natural world.  Reality, if you will.  Tech, on the other hand, is pixels.  They fill the space better, and if done well can create the illusion of a curved line.  They can never, however, fit into a round hole of the same surface area.  The world has gone after the convenience of the internet in a small box.  It has changed the recording industry, the movie industry, and the publishing industry.  And just try to find your way to CBD on it.  You might have to change your search parameters.

A Slice of Pi

Raster images are made of pixels. MP3 files fit into neat little squares. Who owns a watch with an obsolete dial anymore? We live in the digital age. We are satisfied with less. We are told—and who dares question?—that digitization is more precise than any old analogue technique. There really are not curved surfaces anywhere. At lunch with a friend recently, this topic came up. Again. It is a conversation I’ve had before. Not everything can be quantified. Once upon a time, there was something called “quality of life.” No more can Nigel Tufnel claim, “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten.” Everything is ten.

If you don’t believe me, take a digital image and enlarge it. At some point the edges will grow fuzzy. That’s only because our eyes can’t focus on the smallness of the pixels. Keep on enlarging. Eventually you’ll come to the point where the little squares, the pixels, show their characteristic stairway to Heaven. Then go to your favorite art museum. Look at a painting. Get as close as the docent will allow you. Where are the pixels? Or get to know someone with a high quality camera. Preferably one that handles film larger than 35 millimeters. Watch them at the enlarger. The images get bigger, the edges remain sharp and curved. Where are the pixels? Some of us may be too old to truly tell the difference, but try breaking out your old LP’s. If you can find a turntable try one out. Then listen to the CD. Can’t tell the difference? Try putting it up to eleven.

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The classic manual aptitude test has both round and square pegs. We’ve all been told that you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, but we do it all the time. Life is full of circles, swirls, curlicues. We don’t teach our children to read cursive anymore. The square pegs on the keyboard are sufficient for every possible form of communication. There’s no need to sit back and wonder at the implications that pi is a non-repeating, infinite decimal number. You can’t find the area or perimeter of a circle without it. Nature is stunningly rococo with its spirals, from non-pixelated ripples in the water to the colossal swirls of galaxies so large that the human mind can’t comprehend them. For that you need a computer. And just to be safe, you better make sure that it’s one that can go up to eleven.