stevengharms.com

Sententiae viri ex temporibus duobus

Nootropics and the post-Human Future

Life in NYC and SF are remarkably similar in the amount of walking that happens day to day. Unlike San Francisco, however, much of transit time is spent underground where there is no network connection and, as a result, the podcast is a standard accompaniament for Gotham walkers / subway riders. One that I’ve really come to enjoy is the podcast of the Andreesen-Horowitz (or, A16Z) venture capital business.

A16Z has recently started investing in nootropics: materials that help keep you at top cognitive function and on their nootropics podcast they had a really keen observation: as of this moment the human body is at a point such that it can be considered as a component, not unlike the Homebrew computer movement, (e.g. the Homebrew Computer Club of Santa Clara, CA circa 1981) whence came Apple among others.

We now have OEM diagnostic tools which grant us output and diagnostics about our own bodies. In just the way that the Homebrew computer club could mail-order a microcontroller, wire it up to a testing board, and then use an oscilloscope to get performance data about it (“this one sucks”, “this one can do more than it says if we remove this regulating transistor!”) we are now reaching that phase with our meat-casings.

Let’s set a visual: guys with beards, pocket-protectors, slide rules and oscilloscopes meet up at the Homebrew computer club with their latest gizmo. Journey’s latest hit is clicked off as the key is pulled from the ignition of a Corolla. The attendees do a short talk about how many K of memory it has and then someone solders the piece to a board. Or someone comes in with a new copy of “Byte” magazine or a mail-order computer kit. The best components are evaluated, someone runs to Fry’s or Pizza and Pipes and the night runs long, a beer may have been cracked.

Now let’s change the metaphor: men and women with Fitbits, iPhones, and flexible AWS computing power show up. They roll up in Ubers or self-driven cars. They have a PDF of their genomic data and least-squares curve fit data on their triglycerides, running speed, and food intake for the day on their iPhones. They have means for reading the output of the machine (Fitbit), they know its factory-shipped components (genome), and now they’re wondering how can they affect the processing of the hardware: what software changes can they make in a scientific approach that their output devices can capture. They then evaluate their specific responses to nootropic chemical additives and have reliable graphs hours alter showing response, uptake, and fall-off.

It’s splendidly Robert Louis Stevenson.

But it’s not stopping there. I recently heard about how some are even taking to upgrade the hardware of the body — an increase in commitment and risk from the mere chemistry-augmenting offered by nootropics.

Squeamish warning

Seeing these individuals takes the discussion from the (now) permissible altering biochemistry to a slightly more taboo body modification level [1]. Looking at the footage it’s not hard to imagine how this all is coming together: basement labs, sterilization procedure books scanned on the internet, medical supply overnight dot-coms, FedExed IV’s, crowdsourced local anasthetic chemistry, etc.

I think most people would respond to this footage with disgust at “bio-hackery” being tantamount to “body-butchery.” But I suggest that the sophistication of these black-market labs will move quickly from the horror scenes of “Minority Report” and quickly move to being like the plastic surgery spas of Southeast Asia.

What about that UPenn medical rock star? Having never worked a day to her 32nd birthday she leaves crippled by debt (thanks Higher Ed bubble!). Her prospects are to face the litigation-friendly California market, work for an HMO and chip away at that debt mountain, or set up shop for 3 years in a ambiguous-color-market surgery. Maybe some compliant island government “disrupts” malpractice and she set up shop for 3 years (not unlike Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon government resetting cryptography law). In less time than a residency she’s debt-free and has enough money to set up a private practice in the U.S. Sure her “experience” isn’t exactly legitimate, but there are enough discreet clients who will look the other way realizing her to be on the cutting edge of bodily performace.

I think Virtual reality will also have an effect upon the uptake of “meat vehicle” optimization. With the Occulus Rift VR rig shipping and society moving to a state of identity malleability (see: Caitlin Jenner media blitz, Jayden Smith modeling skirts, etc.), I think society will start to think of bodies as designer clothing: means of self expression that can be decorated with tattoos or mirrored glass eye-socket covers. The latter example being a famous visual from William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy.

From Neuromancer:

  "Should I?"  Case blew noisily on his coffee.
  "You needed a new pancreas.  The one we bought for you
frees you from a dangerous dependency."
  "Thanks, but I was enjoying that dependency."
  "Good, because you have a new one."
  "How's that?"  Case looked up from his coffee.  Armitage
was smiling.
  "You have fifteen toxin sacs bonded to the lining of various
main arteries, Case.  They're dissolving.  Very slowly, but they
definitely are dissolving.  Each one contains a mycotoxin.  You're
already familiar with the effect of that mycotoxin.  It was the
one your former employers gave you in Memphis."
  Case blinked up at the smiling mask.
  "You have time to do what I'm hiring you for, Case, but
that's all.  Do the job and I can inject you with an enzyme that
will dissolve the bond without opening the sacs.  Then you'll
need a blood change.  Otherwise, the sacs melt and you're back
where I found you.  So you see, Case, you need us.  You need
us as badly as you did when we scraped you up from the gutter."

But that’s science fiction or it was in 1984.

Another reference close to my heart, the RPG game “Rifts.”

A juicer is a form of any sentient being enhanced by chemicals, providing the being with an augmented strength and endurance.

http://rifts.wikia.com/wiki/Juicer

As Gibson himself wrote, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

…yet.

  1. I find our history on this to be interesting. Since the advent of stimulants and depressives we’ve had a social debate about whether or not it was (literally) kosher to do so. Mormons and Muslims agree alcohol isn’t a legitmate additive. Acetaminophen is a legitimate additive for some, but not for others. This reached its most vivid extremity with the temperance movement and still has echoes with regard to sports “doping.” As we transcend chemistry, as this post sugggests, will we see “natural human” versus “modified human” culture wars / jihads? Almost certainly. See also: “Dune,” “Gattaca.”

Read Zackas Object Oriented Programming in JavaScript

I recently read Nicholas Zackas' The Principles of Object Oriented Javascript and I really recommend it. Many people I know (and students I teach) struggle with mapping the concept of object orientation onto a language that does not follow classical inheritance and lacks many of the visible signals that developers recognize as OO-ish.

The books makes forays into hidden attributes of the language but remains friendly throughout. It offers practical tools and exploratory exercises that will help JavaScript programmers learn more about this interesting and protean language.

I wrote the following precis of my take-aways:

Immersive Birthday Dinner: Zigfields Midnight Frolic

As part of my birthday, Lauren bought us tickets to Zigfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

"Zigfeld's Midnight Frolic"

The show is a immersive theatre experience. You go and meet costumed period-era staff and are seated and are provided dinner. Then the floor show starts, but observing the show are actors in on the theatre production; that is, you watch the performance while another drama plays out around you.

The theater’s lecherous owner, Zigfeld, appears to have an attraction that’s a little too close to the star “Olive Thomas.” Miss Olive also has caught the eye of another performer, “Jack Pickford” who marries her and takes her off to Paris. Needless to say, the associates of these actors: Mrs. Zigfeld, a breathy, volatile, and alcohol-fueled chanteuse named Marilyn Miller are not going to keep their emotions in check as they move about the floor complaining to guests about the nefarious backstage goings-on.

Immersive theater is a new experience and it’s a bit confusing: you watch something, move somewhere else, talk to someone, etc. but eventually the thread emerges about the nature of the back story. Interspersed between the dramatic pieces, you can watch the floorshow which features stunning acts of acrobatics, ribald acts that recall the racy dances of the 1920’s, and clever dance numbers.

"My Passport"

It was a great time and I had a “mission” to make sure that I talked to our spurned and cross chanteuse, Marilyn Miller.

"My Mission"

It was a really fun experience and at the end the author invited all of us to join the cast for an after-party in the bar. Lauren and I declined and headed out into the glaring midnight sunlight of Times Square. It’s nice to visit the 20’s, but it’s great to hop home in the 21st century.

Book: Cataloging the World

In 2008 at SXSW I saw Alex Wright deliver a presentation entitled “The Web That Wasn’t.” Wright enumerated a series of historical approaches to a global distributed system for sharing knowledge that weren’t the World Wide Web. His list included “low tech” visions such Vannevar Bush’s Memex and Paul Otlet’s “Mundaneum” as well as higher-tech counterparts such as Douglas Englebart’s NLS, and Ted Nelson’s Xanadu.

Having read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle not long before, I was interested in what techniques fact-gatherers of yore had used to organize their data in the era before the relational database or self-updating indices. In The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson clever gearworks, labels, and cabinetry make it possible to “reassemble the library” literally to find the right fact. Wright’s few remarks on Otlet’s “Mundaneum” piqued my curiosity: it seemed to be the synthesis of the Dewey Decimal system, the URL, and microfiche. It seemed to be a legacy information storage and retrieval medium that, like the card catalog, I was on the tipping point generation of; I had used the predecessor technologies and had learned, integrated, and come to prefer the successor technologies. Being a geek, of course, I harbor a nostalgia for those old displaced technologies and am awed by how they accomplished so much with such rudimentary tools.

When I came across Cataloging the World it seemed to be a welcome deepening into the world of Otlet’s technology, but also provided color on the man and his times. Particularly of note was that Otlet was a creature of that odd time before the Great War: The Belle Epoque, which marked a new spirit of Internationalism (see: the IWW, et al).

"Cataloging the World"

Otlet’s Technology

Otlet leaned on the work of Conrad Gessner who advocated collecting books' contents onto slips of paper (literally cut out, but in a more book-reverent age, copying would be preferable) that would be fit onto a standardize playing-card size. These cards would each bear a fact and each fact would be noted in a fashion consistent with the Universal Decimal Classification. Physical drawers would help identify and organize facts neatly. While card catalogs may seem anqiuated they provided a scalable, organized means until their successor, the relational database, came along. Notably Otlet advocated the extraction of the content of books into cards, thus winnowing away the author’s “voice” as but so much fluff (prefiguring the search engine). These cards became atomic entities which Otlet called “biblions.” Ultimately Otlet foresaw the birth of a new profession, the “documentalist” who would analyze and synthesize biblions for new querents. Otlet also supposed “client” systems that would integrate with the “home catalog” by which users could query, peruse and synthesize links across archived information.

"Card Catalog"

Otlet’s Institution

Nevertheless, this technological scheme supposes a small army dedicated to order and control and a central organization for housing this body and their efforts. Here we see most clearly the Internationalist sentiment that Otlet held as a personal and spiritual requirement for his work’s success. Otlet spent much of his life seeking patrons and real estate that would house this collective: an institution he called the “Mundaneum.”

Otlet’s Weaknesses

For any information worker today it is clear as his dream’s most colossal and glaring error: control systems simply do not scale. Considering the failure of Internet directories (Yahoo!’s original charter) or the maddening task that awaits anyone who seeks to groom a Wiki, a system of order and heirarchy like Otlet’s seems woefully out of touch – or perhaps merely a relic of a time when information was merely exploding versus exponentially exploding as it seems to be doing in our era.

Conclusion

I rather enjoyed the book and am fascinated by the solution that Otlet imagined in a world that predated the relational database. I feel Otlet’s story was greatly assisted by Wright’s historical placement of him and his solution. The last few chapters covered Otlet versus other information archive designers' solutions. In many ways I feel like Wright was repurposing much of his research from his work Glut. I didnt feel like these comparisons really served Otlet’s story well and these chapters felt bolted-on. Nevertheless, for anyone who would appreciate our information architectures of today, this slim summary of Otlet’s context and dreams was a welcome introduction.

I’ve also included my notes after the break.

Happy Birthday to Me

This weekend I observed my latest birthday. It was a wonderful day and I celebrated it with friends in nearby Prospect Park. Lauren, of course, went beyond the call of duty and made a wonderful brunch: broccoli and cheese quiche, a peach pie, brownies, a cheese board, etc. We had baked goods and goodies plenty when we got back home. We had baked goods and goodies plenty when we got back home.

Saturday we headed over to The Picnic House and set up the goods on a picnic table. Around 11 some of our friends started coming over and within an hour we had a good dozen or so folks gathered round. We shared and laughed and had a rousing game of croquet.

DBC NYC alumni and staff off duty for croquet in the park

A photo posted by Dev Bootcamp (@dev_bootcamp) on

Toward the end of the afternoon we packed things up and headed home. After a nap and some recovery time watching movies we had a sedate evening at home.

Sunday, my true birthday, we headed over to a Mexican brunch place in Windsor Terrace which has a “bottomless” (for 90 minutes anyway) brunch and drink special. We enjoyed ourselves heartily and then promptly came back home for presents and a nap.

Lauren got me a beautiful Timbuk2 backpack that fits my laptop perfectly. She also got me a hipper-than-thou Brooklyn tote (for grocery runs and the like) and a copy of Ready Player One (review forthcoming here).

Lastly she got us tickets to some dinner theater next weekend. It’s a flapper themed murder mystery. It should be a lot of fun.

An Analysis of House of Leaves Part IV: Escaping

Setting the Scene

In the previous posts I have presented a key by which to understand the allegory of the Navidson / Danielewski families. Peripatetic and insular, the children grow up in a world that features great need of their parents; however, their father’s ambitious pursuits swallow him and the mother’s need for his support and validation swallow her along with him, leaving the children alone. While House of Leaves, the novel, depicts that object of paternal obsession as a House with a demonic nature, houses are metaphorical objects meaning any sort of intellectual pursuit that consumes and isolates its pursuer.

The Children’s Experience

I’d like to take a moment to point out that the children’s neglect and fear is not subtle or something that a busy parent with good intentions could miss. No, I think their expressions of discomfort and need were quite clear.

Consistent care seems only to come from outside the nuclear family. Will’s brother, Tom, crafts a custom doll house for Daisy (p. 62) where she spends hours alone playing (ominously) “house.” Further, no one seems to recognize or intervene when Chad “escape[s] outside, disappearing into the summoning woods…his adventures and anger passing away unobserved.”

Even more frightening, from a Child Protective Services perspective, is that the children’s bedroom wall is “covered with drawings (p. 316).” Elsewhere we learn what their drawings look like (from a teacher):

[Chad’s drawing of his house] had no chimney, windows, or even a door. In fact it was nothing more than a black square filling ninety percent of the page. Furthermore several layers of black crayon and pencil had been applied so that not even a speck of the paper beneath could show through. In the thin margins, Chad had added the marauding creatures (p. 313)."

and:

[in the] kindergarten classroom…one [drawing] caught her eye…[t]he same…[monsters]…two thirds the size of the page, an impenetrable square, composed of several layers of black and cobalt blue crayon, with not even the slightest speck of white showing through…drawn by Daisy.

No parent could see this in their children’s bedroom and ignore that something was very, very wrong and that those kids needed out. Will is clearly not visiting children’s most-protected sanctum, the place of one of the first spatial violations, and seeing its violation [1]]. Nor is Karen.

An Analysis of House of Leaves Part III: Mark's Allegory

Mark Danielewski

I approached House of Leaves, the novel, looking for a story of children suffering or getting lost — literally or metaphorically. Also, I kept wondering whether the book was an fictionalization of what it was like growing up a Danielewski child. I went looking for support from Mark’s work and found it on the very first page.

The Ignored Children

HoL opens with a collage photograph with this found snippet:

"Infanticide Collage from House of Leaves"

Note: The collage obscures key words, these are my best estimation. The sentiment emerges regardless

Perhaps I will alter the whole thing. Kill both children. Murder is a better word. Chad scrambling to escape, almost making it to the front door where Karen waits, until a corner in the foyer suddenly leaps forward and hews the boy in half. At the same time Navidson, by the kitchen reaches for Daisy, only to arrive a fraction of a second too late, his fingers ….ding air, his eyes, scratching after Daisy as she …. to her death. Let both parents experience that…their narcissism find a new object to wither by. …them in infanticide. Drown them in blood.

The children are named “Chad” and “Daisy.” Both are children of loving parents (they’re working to save their children) but they are parents who have missed, owing to narcissism (yet to be detailed), their children’s needs. Was it coincidence that “Mark” and “Annie” have the same letter counts as “Chad” and “Daisy?”

Thus the confusion and loss reported by Poe (the “House of Leaves” experience) is triggered, according to Mark, by narcissism. I turned the page looking to see if Mark explains what the narcissisms were.

The Narcissistic Parents

HoL (the novel) describes, in its innermost narrative valence, the story of Will Navidson and Karen Green and their children in a film called The Navidson Record. We learn that Will is a famous photographer early in novel (p. 6). We also learn that Karen is a stunning beauty, a cover model (p. 57) whose face has become a beautiful, learned mask that buries even as it distances. I tried to keep an eye out on the narcissism of the parents as the story unfurled.

Taylor Mac and Brooklyn United Marching Band at the Celebrate Brooklyn Bandshell

I’ve not done much blogging since we moved to New York but I wanted to just say that we’ve been enjoying our summer here. It’s been hot - that’s something that I had forgotten about after living in SF for so long. I’ve been lucky to have some time off and we also had a chance to take Byron upstate to hike around the Catskills and even jump in a swimming hole near Woodstock.

One of the great perks about our neighborhood is a series of summer concerts called “Celebrate Brooklyn.” Thus far we had seen Lucinda Williams. On the first we were graced by a performance from Taylor Mac. Taylor performs selections from the American Songbook as well as soul, funk, well, heck, anything. The song performances are much like cabaret: they feature setup, editorializing, vamping, etc.

"Performance Artist, Taylor Mac"

Judy (Taylor’s preferred pronoun for judy-self given his feelings on gender identity) often takes songs, re-adjusts them, camps them up, or camps them down for humorous or political effect. The highlights were when Taylor decided to take cock-rock anthem “Snakeskin Cowboy” by Ted Nugent and then sentimentalize it unto torch song territory while encouraging the crowd to dance like it was their first gay prom. That’s the kind of inversion I’m talking about.

It was really entertaining for something that Lauren and I decided to attend at the last minute. There were burlesque dancers and covers of Nina Simone but the highlight was when the thundering drums of Brooklyn United Marching Band blazed through and offered a 50-yard line ready version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

As a taste of the energy that the band brought, here’s a clip of them doing “Higher Ground.”

An Analysis of House of Leaves Part II: Poe's "Haunted"

Introduction

In the previous post I explained that my interpretation of House of Leaves was based on the honest, first-person perspective performed by Poe in her album “Haunted.” Her story of struggling to be heard against the voice and pursuits of her father (his Houses of Leaves) is a dominant theme in this work. In this post I’d like to describe how I became so thoroughly familiar with this recording.

In 2000 late I was in Campbell, CA on a rainy (yes, California had rain back then), winter afternoon. I had been in the Bay Area for about 4 months and still hadn’t met many people. To pass the time I would often go music shopping at the Rasputin records and grab a set of tacos from Taco Bravo. On one occasion I saw that a musician whose music I had enjoyed in 1996, and whom I had even seen perform in Houston in that same year, Poe, had released a new record, “Haunted.”

An Analysis of House of Leaves Part I: Toward a New Understanding

Introduction

Last summer I was prompted by my friend Danielle to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. As she urged me to read the book I gleefully said that I had alway been meaning to given that I was such a fan of “Haunted,” the album companion to the book by Mark’s sister, Annie Danielewski, who performs under the name “Poe.”

Truth be told, I had avoided the book in part because it was just too much like me. I had scanned a few pages shortly after its release and I immediately recognized a kindred spirit in the voice of Mark: discursive, recursive, rambling, annotated, polymathic, vertiginous. I (rightly) feared what it would mean for me to process this work and integrate it. I finished the book over a year ago and have put hours into writing this series of posts. To say it had an effect on me would be an understatement.

Looking on the Internet for fellow lovers of the book I was surprised that so much of the focus was on the postmodern structure of the book: use of formatting, footnotes, narrative frames-within-frames, etc. Even I wrote from that perspective in discussing his break with Latin metrical rule. Far too much discussion has focused on secret codes and symbolism and have missed the message of the novel.

I believe I have perceived the message this cry of pain in part because I have loved “Haunted” for over 15 years. Since I have memorized and internalized the emotional anguish and rage inside “Haunted” I never stopped looking for the companion dynamic in House of Leaves. By holding this perspective, I think I found House of Leaves' message.

The Message of House of Leaves

House of Leaves is a roman a clef. It tells a story, in its inner-most valence, of two children raised by a narcissistic [1] father film-making father whose obsession with his ideas and logocentrism left them feeling ignored for much of their childhood. Their mother was unable to assure them due to psychological damage from her history and her codependency on the father. As a result, the children spent much of their time together in unstable situations clinging to each other for support. The girl (Daisy) turned to an inward world of creation and imagination (dolls, doll-houses) while the boy (Chad) flirted with violence and withdrawing into nature.

It is further my belief that this story is pseudo-biographical: the boy, to a greater degree, is Mark Z. Danielewski and the girl is Annie Decatur Danielewski. The story inside of House of Leaves’s innermost Matryoshka Doll, The Navidson Record, is a fictionalization for their youth and describes the desperate machinery of their family[2].

A “house of leaves” is therefore a metaphor for an intellectual pursuit that captures the pursuer and pulls them away from the “reality” of their social universe and relationships. The creators of these houses can only be freed from them or escape them when they give up the quest &emdash; something they may not be able or willing to do &emdash; and seek those relationships while being sought by those outside.

Vulnerability

This interpretation is so intimate and so personal and raw and private to the Danielewski children that I was, at the end of writing these posts, unsure as to whether I should publish them or not. They felt too personal, like the facts had been hidden intentionally with the expectation that no one would dig that deep, would break the code.

Talking this over with Lauren she suggested that people who encode their art may have the feeling that “they could never say it right when they said it plainly” but that someone caring enough to read through might be validation and the type of love they were looking for. Thus I am here, writing this first prologue to a series of posts. [3]

After-Effects

Many years on, after the death of the father, the two children made a collaborative art project. In “Haunted” the girl, Annie AKA Poe, lays bare her hurt from this dynamic and moves toward forgiveness (“He wanted you to know / He isn’t holding a grudge And if you are you should let go”). In House of Leaves the boy, Mark, obfuscates and creates logocentric traps that misdirect and seduce the reader from seeing the simple plain truth at the heart of the story: “we grew up neglected by a man who was easily drawn-in by logocentric traps like you; it was painful to me and my sister.” He imagines a happy ending (whether he got it or not, I do not know).

In the following posts I will try to justify my interpretation.

Next Post

The next post will focus on how familiarity with Poe’s work provided a topical emphasis on neglect that informed my interpretation and described above.

Footnotes

  1. The words “narcissistic” and “neglect” are words that stop a reader cold. Both of these words exist on a gradient. “Narcissism” can range from a pathological form to a less pathological form. “Neglect” need not be a trailer park home in squalor with babies sitting in mud either. “Neglect” runs a wide gamut. Neither implies criminal or delinquent behavior per se. In fact a discussion about “invisible” neglect is described here: http://www.drjonicewebb.com/about-emotional-neglect/
  2. Let me be explicit, I do not believe there is 100% correspondence between the Danielewski family and the Navidson family. I am sure there are substantial differences in degrees and character traits. It is unlikely that every flaw or virtue of Will Navidson corresponds to the childrens' real father. There should be allowances for artistic license.
  3. Should you, dear reader, ever be one of the Danielewski children and you feel heard, or hurt, or thankful for this analysis; should you wish to clarify or deny or tell me I got it all wrong or too painfully right, please let me know and I will correct or remove or edit per your request. I love both of your works so very much and I’m so glad that in this life that they both meant so much to me. I would never want to hurt either of you. You are brave and beautiful artists and my life has been enriched by your work.