Monday, August 22, 2022

Lost Knowledge

I've always been fascinated by the field of lost knowledge.
We don't know how the Stradivarius family made their fiddles sound so good. More broadly speaking, we've lost that entire era's know-how for this. And we likely will never get it back. No professional classical violinist that I know of plays a modern violin. It's amazing (and humbling) if you'll think about it.

Highly influential philosophers and historians are mentioned in Ancient Greek and Roman texts for whom nary a word survives.

My elderly Swedish friend Sten-Åke lived in a cool apartment aboard the historical tall ship docked at South Street Seaport because he was the only man alive who knew how to tie all the knots.
There are more such losses than you'd imagine. In fact, you could even question the the normally firm assumption that technology improvement has been a straight upward arrow (you can also take this too far the other way, believing that early civilizations with sophisticated tech have vanished into the dustheap ("All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again").

There are so many such points of loss, all the time, that each of us may serve as a final repository of some doomed know-how. I don't mean your knowledge of how Aunt Ethel liked her eggs. I mean significant points of fact. We don't realize we carry such information due to normalcy bias.

Opposing some people's visceral notion that EVERYTHING is significant, the vast majority of us are inclined to deem NOTHING significant (among other things, this accounts for my claim that "If Pablo Picasso grew up in Akron, Ohio, he'd have been considered one of the best painters in Summit County"). We naturally compress extremes, which makes us miss bona fide significance.

Here are two points of nearly lost knowledge I happen to steward.

In the early 90s, I helped run a few forums on Compuserve, a dial-in computer networking service. And because this wasn't the loosey-goosey Web, where everything can be faked and stats are all approximated, every last click and action were logged; ascribable to one certain user. We forum admins reaped interesting and useful data, like the ratio of posters to mute lurkers.

It always came out to something like one or two hundred to one. So .5 - 1% of regular forum members post something. I believe this metric held true through my reign at Chowhound, and remains accurate to this day. You can spot evidence by comparing YouTube viewing stats to commenting stats (though YouTube is, of course, a different animal; certain types of videos provoke far more or less comments). My informed speculation is that 10% of users like/rate/favorite, and 10% of them comment/contribute/post. And while every forum manager has a loose feeling for this, virtually none of them started from the solid ground of a service like Compuserve, offering data which today's admins could only dream of (even with the modern assistance of cookies, trackers, log-ons, etc).

We've lost a tempo. It's called "loping" (pronounced "lopin'") and I'll go out on a limb and claim that no jazz musician under the age of 80 knows the term. Loping is between a draggy slow tempo and a medium walking tempo. Not quite walkin', not quite draggin'. Lopin'!

Tempos can't be meaningfully ascribed to metronome markings. A tempo is also a feel. An environment. A habitat. Every musician knows what a "bright" tempo is, but you'll never get two to agree on a prescribed metronome range. Like pornography, we simply know it when we see it.

When the term "loping" disappeared, so did the tempo. Players may serendipitously arrive at loping-ish tempos, but, not knowing how to lope, they either do a slightly-faster version of dragging or a slightly-slower version of walking. No one, alas lopes.

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