Pirates for posterity in The Amalgamated Aggromulator

  • Feb. 5, 2015, 3:52 p.m.
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Getting very, very tired of this ultra-verbiated madness, and somewhat dismayed by it. Me. My comments. Here, in Facebook, under io9 posts, everywhere. My language brain is hyper-stimulated and exercised by the editing activity, the endless careful parsing and balancing . . . and my judgment is attenuated by editing fatigue, both acutely and with the depletion of certain wellsprings.

I like my writing most when I say things clearly in as short form as is possible . The right ten words. I’m not doing that, I’m exuberantly rambling out grand framings, at the slightest of provocations, and the look is perilously close to that dread egomaniacal word “pontifical.” And when I do it in places where the surrounding comments are almost all shorter or much shorter - which is almost everywhere - it stands out even more. As if everything I say is so important and definitive that it deserves all this grand baroque embroidery - when really that’s just how it’s coming out, in something much more akin to a bladder control problem.

I’m looking a lot more of the wrong kind of “sure” than I actually am. I’m looking like everyone I know who is writing so confidently - and missing his or her own blind spots.

(And I can be sure that my editing brain cells have been specifically exhausted when the only revisions that occur to me are additions!)

The ecosystem’s balance has been disrupted. The gardener must try to adapt to the new conditions. This is a very strange problem to have.

Look at that! Even up there!

Awhile ago I posted a status in Facebook “I feel annoying.” (And got a slew of responses from careless readers asking why I felt annoyed.)

That’s the feeling now. :-/

Just venting that odd frustration doesn’t make an entry that’s worth reading, or make enough of a channel-change exercise.
I could talk about all the new pepper seedlings under lights out in the plant room by the front door, as I did last spring. (I will put in that a woman who grew up in the Caribbean came into our driveway last year, seeking hot peppers to use in recipes from her home island, and was extremely disappointed that we didn’t have Scotch bonnets. The habaneros, in the same class of very-hot, wouldn’t do - she said that Scotch bonnets are by far the most flavorsome of the category. So we’ve remedied that for this year, and I pass the advice on. Scotch bonnets, for all your mouth-burning needs.)

But a better idea is if I use this entry to write down an interesting idea for myself, so that I will not forget about it as easily.

Robin and the Pirates is a picture-book for children from the 1970s that puts Where’s Waldo? to shame. Every page in the story is a grand crowd scene of infinite detail with pirates doing hilarious things of all levels of complexity in every square inch.

The Super-Roo of Mungalongaloo is an Australian children’s book that introduced me to a magnificent kangaroo who’d had an encounter with (I still mutter the words under my breath every so often, in the shower and at crowded bus stops) “the little purple people from the star Polaris.”

The Stone Cage is a story told from the point of view of a cat, who is feuding with a raven - both of which are the pets or familiars of Rapunzel’s witch.

I have wanted to see these books again, over the last few years . . . and when I’ve looked I’ve always found something discouraging.

I wrote in Facebook a few days ago:

Starting to get a complex about how many books I loved as a little kid now cost a mint to find a used copy.
The Stone Cage, by Nicholas Stuart Gray - in Amazon, from $228.94.
Robin and the Pirates, by E. E. Libenzi - in Amazon, from $843.99.
The Super-Roo of Mungalongaloo, by Osmar White - in Amazon, from $248.99.
. . . It's like there's an eater-bot following behind me in time and clearing away my home planet.

Which is hardly a feeling unique to me.
But, when I was a kid, one of the things that I believed or expected was that civilization, or the civilization that we had matured into, just keeps accumulating good stuff, without losing any of the good things.

(Because why wouldn’t that be how it is? We’re smart. Little kids think like this.)

Then NASA used its old Apollo-era big-ass boosters for lawn ornaments. :-) Orangutans still dribble toward extinction in the wild because of us. And we do lose good things in mindless turnover.

(And even the”once something is on the internet, it’s forever” warning is just lovely wishful thinking. There is no massive encoding-onto-giant-crystals project.)

A great argument for those mostly-silly time capsules.

. . . Which is an idea that stuck.

Time capsules had been bouncing around the back of my head from reading about the time capsule they just opened in Boston that was buried by Paul Revere, hero of the American Revolution.

But suddenly it sounded like an awesome idea for a mad-money project whenever I actually get to have mad money:

Assemble twenty near-lost children’s books like these and put them in a really good, inert-gas-filled, hyperpreserving time capsule.

A truly awesome idea.

Because, really, this was an answer to a big question I had always had about the idea of time capsules:
What is the best choice of thing to put into one?

People put in things representative of their own time. So, when Rubik’s Cubes were big, a lot of people put Rubik’s Cubes into time capsules. Some of those time capsules have already been opened . . . in a world in which there are still plenty of Rubik’s Cubes around to look at. It’s not clear how long it would take before a Rubik’s Cube became a rare and genuinely exotic object. Or why this would even happen, unless the span of time elapsed were remarkable indeed.

And you cannot know what will be a rare thing then.

Paul Revere put in some coins, some well-preserved newspapers, a few documents, and an engraved silver plate it’s a good bet that he made himself. Things of minor interest to historians, or really things good for idle curiosity. Nothing earth-shaking; nothing unknown.

And if you did have something genuinely momentous to bequeath to the future - you could give the future a big surprise, I guess, but, really, why bequeath it, why bury it? There are plenty of uses in your own time, right now, for momentous things. Give it to people now.

This basic puzzlement means that time capsules have had to remain rather frivolous or quirky things, with no real utility. Like selfies sent to strangers who already know what you look like.
(Although I have thought of two minor purpose-exceptions - both, strangely, useful specifically to criminals. The first is for a guilty conscience: if you did not want to face punishment for a crime or want your loved ones to be shamed, but you felt driven to confess your guilt to society, you could use a time capsule to make a full confession when you and your family can no longer suffer. The second is far nastier - for a perfect murder, although the murder could have no purpose or payoff except for intrinsic relish: you bury a nice solid time capsule saying “OPEN IN 200 YEARS,” that’s designed to make X-ray scans and so on less than revealing . . . and it’s an anti-personnel bomb. You’re pretty safe from prosecution for murdering people long after you’re gone.)

But there is a way to know what to choose to bequeath to the future that would mean something:

If the thing you choose is already rare or vanishing now.

What are my options for doing something about certain books I’ve loved that now cost hundreds of dollars a copy? I could do nothing. I could try to get a publisher interested in reprinting them.

Or I could pass them on down the line.

Then, barring disastrous deterioration in the time capsule, they definitely are in the future at time X, which is something that I am certainly not sure of otherwise . . . and they are by the very nature of their selection likely to be otherwise very rare or entirely absent then. And they are likely to be interesting when found; after all, they came out of a time capsule! (And what does this mean for the chances of their preservation and reproduction and dissemination then?)

Trying to get them reprinted now (however one does that, whatever the complications, however little succeeding would guarantee) is a very sane option . . . almost certainly a saner one. But there is something really beautiful about this idea.

I like it.

When the heck I’d have the money is a question. But . . . how much money are we talking about, for a time capsule?

It tickles. (Revere just left a ten-pound brass box in a building cornerstone, and the folded newspapers inside are said to be “in amazingly good condition.”)

But, if I want the books to be not just still readable but fully reproducible without difficulty - and these are works with colorful illustrations, which makes things even more delicate - and if I’m putting rare copies at possible risk, it’s a more demanding target. I would have to be much more careful.

When I had the idea, I imagined the capsule filled with a noble gas to replace reactive oxygen; I thought I had pulled that out of my speculator, but I must have been remembering that the Declaration of Independence and other documents like it are stored in an argon atmosphere.
But that may not be the end of the story. Proper, moderate levels of humidity are needed for paper preservation, so I can’t just have it bone-dry in there. (Which is why preserving them in a vacuum isn’t another option.) But changes in temperature can make condensation, which I don’t even want to think about with these books. Usually, for this reason, book preservation by libraries and archives involves continuous careful climate control . . . but a time capsule is a sealed box with an absolutely unmonitored interior. Temperature swings can make paper materials buckle and warp over time even without the condensation problem. And with the temperature differences between summer and winter . . .
The earth’s thermal mass, as in caves, can make for a steady temperature, and that temperature would be cool, which is also good for book preservation. However, the bite of the conundrum is that, if the time capsule is buried deeply enough that the changing seasons don’t affect the internal temperature, or that they affect it very minimally, then the capsule may be buried too deeply to be found. And it must be found.

A box can be insulated - and I’ve also been hazily indulging a mad-science speculation, probably a wrong one with an empty set as an answer, about some other substance that wouldn’t damage or forever contaminate the books, with a different vapor/condensation profile, but that would have the same effect on the paper, that I could simply replace the water/humidity with.
. . . All of which is obsession far too early.

I’m still trying, without success, to find stuff about time capsule design as a subject. Without that, the fact that I can find designs on the market is unreassuring; their business model won’t be affected if a capsule is found to have failed in some respect eight decades from now. I found one steel box design for sale that says it’ll last up to a hundred years “or more depending on placement”, for a top price of $2,200. Phooey; I’m thinking of something that could keep its contents at a high level of safety for a minimum of double that time (and I would be even if I thought the actual trip would be shorter). But what if the right design might not be more than double that price? Five grand would be much less than I was originally imagining.

Are endangered beloved children’s books important enough for such an expenditure?

When I put this through my galvanized pressure cooker, I don’t get a “no.”

I get, “what a beautiful idea.”

So I’ve written it down.

(I wish there were a way to stuff living orangutans in there.)

Last updated February 05, 2015

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