To grow old is a strange thing: you watch agog as all you loved turns cheap and
tawdry: gold to tin, elegance to chintz. The titillating becomes the
pornographic, the folly becomes incalculable error, the youth become parasitic,
and the open-armed city becomes a clutch of exploitative vipers.
The student of history knows that it has been ever thus. They can only smile,
sadly, faithfully reporting the reality of their times and accepting it as a
backdrop for the master narrative of their own life: whom they loved, the
career that seemed so important, the rituals and places whose importance seemed
natural and unfeigned.
In unremarkable times, death comes to the lucky and they never have to question
these narratives and backdrops. But for those caught at the locus of the
rupture, they feel their world change and wonder whether the most important
tatters of the old life and its beauty will make it across the gap with them.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is a story of a man in such a
time. A man in a future not so terribly far off from our own whose encounter of
utter, wrenching true love has the challenge of happening in interesting times.
Leonard Abramov: middle-aged, over-fond of rich food, moldering collections of
words on pages called books finds himself trying to court, win, seduce, and
become desirable to Eunice Park, a girl born part-and-parcel to the
Spoiler Warning: I recommend the book highly. If you want it in all its
unspoiled glory come back later.
Setting plays an incredibly important role in this book, so I’d like to note
some of the more interesting aspects of the dystopia where our rupture happens.
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.
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.
Seeing these individuals takes the discussion from the (now) permissible
altering biochemistry to a slightly more taboo body modification level .
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
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
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.
"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
"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.
As Gibson himself wrote, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly
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.”
The books makes forays into hidden attributes of the language but remains
friendly throughout. It offers practical tools and exploratory exercises that
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
It was a great time and I had a “mission” to make sure that I talked to our
spurned and cross chanteuse, Marilyn Miller.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)."
[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 ]. Nor is Karen.
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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
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