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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.

House of Leaves' Subtle Easter Eggs

Introduction

In 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski published House of Leaves. While ostensibly a genre novel (horror), the book is much more than that owing largely to its conceit, or if less kind, gimmick, that

  • there is a principal narrative reflected in a film called The Navidson Record
  • that is presented as the subject of a number of scholarly analyses
  • which were incompletely collected by a character who is dead
  • but which are arranged to completion by an unreliable narrator
  • who annotates the collection with his feelings about the action in a series of discursive footnotes (his name is “Johnny Truant”)
  • which are collected by an editor who reviewed Mr. Truant’s work
  • which is read by you
  • which is also read and destroyed by a character in the principal narrative (and thus the ouroboros is sated)

In such a multi-layered tapestry there are many interesting discoveries and connections, to be discovered and House of Leaves has sprung a cottage industry of fan-theorists and analysis. I think I have found an “easter egg” hidden by Danielweski for those familiar with Latin and, specifically Ovid, that I’d like to point out.

SPOILERS: It should be obvious that there will be some spoiler potential after the jump.

Teaching Ruby Over JavaScript

Literacy

Chris Granger recently published a post that asserts “Coding is not the new literacy.” He points out that “literacy” is defined as the “laying” of characters into units that bear meaning (letters to words, words to sentences, sentences to thoughts). But “literacy” is a proxy noun for something vastly more important: a technology for storing information such that it survives across people, ages, cultures.

I recall Ovid whose prophetic close to the “Metamorphoses” was:

And now the work is done, which neither Jupiter's wrath, nor fire, nor the
sword, nor greedy time can abolish....my better part[this work] will be
immortal...

(Translation mine)

Literacy was magic because the laying of letters yielded immortality. Ovid supposed that his work’s immortality would require mouths, ore legar populi (“recited in the mouths of the population,” recitation as mimetic preservation), but with the advent of cheap yet durable writing technology, immortality could be more cheaply gained by means of finding home in the books of the populus (publication as mimetic preservation).

But what if we could make the component pieces of abstract thinking similarly immortal?

That’s exactly what programming and its concomitant activity coding are.

Coding

“Programming” is the skill wherein we calm our distracted minds into expressing a sharable, abstract computation activity that solves a problem. “Coding,” similar to “literacy” is the mechano-visual skill whereby one expresses the solution. “Programming,” therefore is one: fungible, transcendent, and unbound to any particular language. “Coding,” by contrast, is necessarily bonded to an “implementation language.”

As a teacher my pedagogical approach privileges teaching “programming” over “coding.” Yet I must wrestle with this difficult conundrum: to teach “programming” I much teach students “coding,” and that means I have to choose a language of implementation.

Ruby

I recommend Ruby. If my goal is to teach “programming,” then I want a language that has a clear syntax, has very few surprises and allows the student to focus on the “Tao of Programming” and not the “WTF of function-level scope?” A friendly syntax allows students opportunity to work at understanding “programming” before understanding the multiform and delightful ways that different styles of “coding” can provide more or less expressive, concise, or clever ways of achieving crafting the same “programming” unit.

As my colleague, Anne, once pointed out: “It’s easier to explain to someone what a mansion is after they know what a hut is.” If they’ve never seen either, you’re in a check-and-egg situation. To me, Ruby provides the maximal perception of programming while keeping the syntax, surprises and tangles of “coding in Ruby” out of the way.

Also, experienced Ruby hands know that thanks to lambdas, blocks, and Procs, Ruby can be adapted to reach extremely sophisticated utterances while its introductory interfaces remain friendly.

Why Not C?

One might suggest that C reveals the fundamentals of the machine in a small, approachable, logically consistent fashion. C also has the virtue of being like Plato: all further work is largely a response to the framework he / it established. I recall a conversation with Aaron Hillegass in Rome where he supposed that he would teach his (then!) young sons C as a first language.

I can’t disagree with the beauty of C as a first language: it invites engagement with the machine, invites understanding of memory, and can be understood, beautifully, as a series of markings-off of lengths on a single length of tape (no coincidence when one of its primary storage media was, uh, tape).

Nevertheless, to write a primitive CGI script in C a student will quickly step into the challenge of string parsing in C, they will have to write separate handlers for GET and POST, etc. Lacking experience with discipline around modularity, managing complexity, and pointers, the “programming” lesson gets lost in the “coding” ephemera.

The method I teach under tries to educate rapidly in a small unit of time. For such a program C seems unnecessarily clumsy. One of C’s many virtues is clarity for those who already know how to program, to presume that for a student is a disservice. I recall Larry Wall, creator of Perl, once saying that he learned the C language in a trivial amount of time, but learning its standard library took a non-trivial amount of time.

Why Not JavaScript?

JavaScript is a language whose growth seems to be on a hockey-stick of growth. That it is part and parcel of a widely-distributed development platform (the browser) with an integrated REPL (developer tools) would seem to make it seem preferable to Ruby whose dependency / version manager toolset options present a complicated hurdle to the beginner.

While JavaScript’s development environment bootstrapping is enviable, I feel the language has a number of strong drawbacks. First, it’s rather verbose. If I never have to type function again, it will be too soon. But I consider that con to be trivial compared to the following drawback: to accomplish simple work (say mapping over an array) a number of implicit mental models are required to already be in place. Further there are some scary bugaboos lurking in minds where those mental models are imperfectly present. Consider:

1
  twice_as_large = [1,2,3].map{ |x| 2 * x } #=> [2,4,6]

versus:

1
2
3
  var twice_as_large = [1,2,3].map(function(i) {
    return i * 2;
  }) //=> [2,4,6]

While an experienced programmer may see no significant shift, consider the implicit understanding in the JavaScript example:

  • Anonymous functions
  • Function as first class data i.e. is not executed
  • return i * 2 is not in the same context as [1,2,3] was
  • Arity is not enforced and desired data may be present but not “captured” by a parameter
  • arguments as a hidden construct (part and parcel of arity)
  • etc.

The Ruby example does the same work but has, in my view, far fewer punji pits laying in wait for the tyro. Based on its implicit assumptions around simple work, JavaScript strikes me as being a sub-optimal first. As an audience member at the first NodeConf, nothing was more humanizing and ego-salvaging as watching Ryan Dahl muttering over a livecoding bug disparage whoever decided to implement Node in Javascript.

Conclusion

Thus, for the moment, I recommend using Ruby as a primary teaching language. While Ruby is the coding language I recommend students start with, owing to it’s ability to get out of the way and help students learn programming, I believe it is the optimal choice. Having seen and felt the Tao of Programming, I’m positive that learning to code any other language is a vastly simpler task.