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Transmogrification of junk
by Jan Sand
2006-09-21 22:08:11
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What we throw away is oftentimes more significant than what we keep. It has been noted that the skills in perception and storage, which defines humanity’s dominance over all other species are not attributed to what events we can be aware of, but how cleverly we filter out material of no relevant importance and latch on to those perceptions which are prime in fitting together a world that seems to make sense.

Any average genius that you run into in a bar or a coffee shop will quickly demonstrate the ability to discard extraneous material and cut, with lightning speed, to the bone of any subject.

But humanity, as it has progressed, has tacked on all sorts of gadgets to its prime sense organs to extend its perceptive ability to create, if not cyborg individuals, at least a cyborg society. It turns out that multitudes of babies had been tossed away with all those baths and the universe today would be totally unrecognizable to the wisest genius of Ancient Greece. And as a matter of fact, the recent puzzles of dark matter and dark energy presage, in the near future, a vision to obliterate or at least radically reconstruct almost everything basic we accept as reality today.

Focusing on a closer and more limited span of time it is obvious to this particular time traveler that what we toss away these days differs radically in character and quality from what was considered superfluous even as recently as forty years ago.

There is a street in lower Manhattan that spans the distance between the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn and the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey. It is named Canal Street because in the early 1800’s it ran alongside a canal, but I knew it first in the 1950’s when the actual canal was long paved over. That was where one could sift through the most glorious junk one could imagine.

Back then lots of stuff left over from WWII was dumped by the government, fine tools and garments and all sorts of military hardware, aside from weapons that could be had for less than a dollar. One store specialized in lenses and fine instruments, telescopes and bomb sights and mysterious electromechanical widgets with no perceptible function but chock full of parts that could be disassembled and used to make whatever the imagination permitted.

There was a store that sold huge pieces of aluminum and brass and steel tossed away at negligible prices, available for little more than their wholesale prices. Industries were still active and producing over-runs that ended up in Canal Street at an insignificant cost.

Back then there were many commercial neighborhoods that have since disappeared. Lower Fourth Avenue hosted a long string of used book stores with all sorts of odd wonderful treasures displayed in boxes on the street and the area now occupied by the graveyard of the Twin Towers had store after store with radios and TVs and other electronic second hand stuff dirt cheap.

Manhattan still has concentrations of stores for various specialties. 47th Street for diamonds and jewelry, Lower Broadway for cloth, West side below 14th Street for flowers, Seventh Avenue around 34th Street for buttons and other clothing gadgets and so forth. The small metal working shops in lower Manhattan are gone although Chinatown still has places that do metal contract work.

I imagine much industry has departed overseas to China where fabricating for the world is centered. Helsinki had echoes of Canal Street in the late sixties on Annankatu and Ruskeasuo, before it was redeveloped. It had some marvelous junk shops with wonderful stuff. Some of that migrated to Tattarisuo, but it’s not the same at all. There’s no place now where a strange idea leaps out of an old barrel and marches into existence.

All that wonderful junk was a wild technological midden to inspire creative artists, the tech maven with a great idea, and just somebody who likes to fool around and assemble something nobody ever thought of before – the general Rubegoldbergian.

These days technology has advance to the point that all those junk parts that were small but manageable have diminished in size to the point that a construction crew of bacteria is needed to revamp much of the fine work and those guys have still to be coerced and educated..

But still, a talented noodler these days with clever fingers and a talent for dreaming can mine a discarded computer, a video recorder, a CD player and perhaps a caterpillar tractor to conjure up something to astonish the world.

I wish him luck in this era of declining garbage.

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Robert2006-09-17 21:38:01
"What we throw away is oftentimes more significant than what we keep." How true :)

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