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
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  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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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
That’s exactly what programming and its concomitant activity coding are.
“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.
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,
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.
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.
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:
While an experienced programmer may see no significant shift, consider the
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
arguments as a hidden construct (part and parcel of arity)
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
audience member at the first NodeConf, nothing was more humanizing and
ego-salvaging as watching Ryan Dahl muttering over a livecoding bug
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.