the HOPEaroids

I just got back from HOPE, which was fantastic. All the talks should be archived here.

I also found a Polaroid camera at the back of a closet in my parents’ house. It’s a lot of fun to play with. Some of the first experiments are below.

The color borders bother me a bit.  I bought film for the Polaroid 600 camera from The Impossible Project and had no idea what to expect; I’d never taken a polaroid before last week, and I got one pack of the color border exposures because they’re cheaper. Also, I would have scanned these, but word on the street is that scanning polaroids can damage them.

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Excerpt from “Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room” by Angela Carter

The young girl found her voice at last.

“Tell me,” she said, “the answer to this problem: the Governor of Kgoujni wants to give a very small dinner party, and invites his father’s brother-in-law, his brother’s father-in-law, his father-in-law’s brother, and his brother-in-law’s father. Find the number of guests.”*

At the sound of her voice, which was as clear as a looking-glass, everything in the curious room gave a shake and a  shudder and, for a moment, looked as if it were painted on gauze, like a theatrical effect, and might disappear if a bright light were shone on it. Dr. Dee stroked his beard reflectively. He could provide answers to many questions, or knew where to look for answers. He had gone and caught a falling starre — didn’t a piece of it lie beside the stuffed dodo? To impregnate the aggressively phallic mandrake, with its masculinity to the power of two, implied by its name, was a task which, he pondered, the omnivorous Archduke, with his enthusiasm for erotic esoterica, might prove capable of. And the answer to the other two imponderables posed by the poet were obtainable, surely, through the intermediary of the angels, if only one scried long enough.

He truly believed nothing was unknowable. That is what makes him a modern.

But, to the child’s question, he can imagine no answer.

Kelly, forced against his nature to suspect the presence of another world that would destroy his confidence in tricks, is sunk in introspection, and has not even heard her.

However, such magic as there is in this world, as opposed to the worlds that can be made out of dictionaries, can only be real when it is artificial and Dr. Dee himself, whilst a member of the Cambridge Footlights at university, before his beard was white or long, directed a famous production of Aristophanes’ Peace at Trinity College, in which he sent a grocer’s boy right up to heaven, laden with his basket as if to make deliveries, on the back of a giant beetle.

Arychtas made a flying dove of wood. At Nuremburg, according to Boterus, an adept constructed both an eagle and a fly and set them to flutter and flap across his laboratory, to the astonishment of all. In olden times, the statues that Daedalus built raised their arms and moved their legs due to the action of weights, and of shifting deposits of mercury. Albertus Magnus, the Great Sage, cast a head in brass that spoke.

Are they animate or not, these beings that jerk and shudder into such a semblance of life? Do these creatures believe themselves to be human? And if they do, at what point might they, by virtue of the sheer intensity of their belief, become so?

(In Prague, the city of the Golem, an image can come to life).

The Doctor thinks about these things a great deal and thinks the child upon his knee, babbling about the inhabitants of another world, must be a little automaton popped up from God knows where.

Meanwhile, the door marked “Forbidden” opened up again.

***

*There’s an answer given in the text, but I’m not going to include it here.

“To Those Born Later,” Bertolt Brecht

[I]

Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
a talk about trees is almost a crime
because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
who are in need?

It is true I still earn my keep
but, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
by chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost).

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
but how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
from the starving, and
my glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would also like to be wise.
in the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
your brief time without fear
also to get along without violence
to return good for evil
not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do:
truly, I live in dark times.

[II]

To the cities I came in a time of disorder
that was ruled by hunger.
I sheltered with the people in a time of uproar
and then I joined in their rebellion.
That’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

I ate my dinners between the battles,
I lay down to sleep among the murderers,
I didn’t care for much for love
and for nature’s beauties I had little patience.
That’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

The city streets all led to foul swamps in my time,
my speech betrayed me to the butchers.
I could do only little
but without me those that ruled could not sleep so easily:
That’s what I hoped.
That’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

Our forces were slight and small,
Our goal lay in the far distance
clearly in our sights,
If for me myself beyond my reaching.
that’s how I passed my time that was given to me on this Earth.

[III]

You who will come to the surface
from the flood that’s overwhelmed us and drowned us all
must think, when you speak of our weakness in times of darkness
that you’ve not had to face:

Days when we were used to changing countries
more often than shoes,
through the war of the classes despairing
that there was only injustice and no outrage.

Even so we realised
hatred of oppression still distorts the features,
anger at injustice still makes voices raised and ugly.
Oh we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness,
could never be friendly ourselves.

And in the future when no longer
do human beings still treat themselves as animals,
look back on us with indulgence.

 

 

intention and its discontents

In light of the DAO hack (here’s a tl;dr for those not in the know), a lot of people have been talking about intention — the role that conscious will, something we generally ascribe to humans, should play in code-based organizations that are designed to be run without centralized human oversight. The logic goes that if all members of a DAO agree on the terms of the smart contract it runs, there should be little (if any) need  for the intervention of human judgment during its period of operation.

In a rather dreamy moment I started thinking about a totally different institution in which the concept of intention is diminished: Eastern religion. Non-intention, surrendering to processes much larger than oneself, and participation in collaborative efforts that minimize the role of individual are cornerstones of Buddhist and Taoist thought.

I was riffing on this cool code-philosophy parallel for a little while, trying to see things from the perspective of a hypothetical autonomous-code purist — a technologist who would never, under any circumstances, support the role of intention in a blockchain program or organization.

Unlike code, intention isn’t scientific. In fact it’s deeply subjective, open not only to varying interpretation by others but to revision and even misunderstanding by the original bearer of that intention, at a later date. There’s something pretty Zen about “trust in the code,” or even “trustless technology” (two terms that essentially mean the same thing, though I prefer the former). And maybe, through some mental gymnastics, the analogy between non-intention in spirituality and non-intention in code could help me understand the appeal of entirely removing humans from processes that may have very deep effects on them (such as the loss of ~$50M).

The only thing is that… drumroll, please… machines aren’t humans!

Non-intention is a beautiful idea when we’re talking about minimizing the role of the ego, of desire and selfishness, in humans — in order to alleviate their suffering (see: Buddhism 101). It’s an interesting way to think about humans creating art, too (see: John Cage).

To get really spiritual here for a second, I think that [insert your higher power of choice] gifted humans with something we can’t give to machines. Or at least we haven’t gotten there yet. You could call it consciousness, though that word doesn’t feel quite right—”soul” and “spirit”  would have to be included in the definition. As part of this ineffable God-given whatever, we have the ability to set forth a will and intention that touches various factors and dimensions of our existence. These may include factors of which we’re not consciously aware.

Since machines are pretty far away from being humans (including the most advanced AI, though I know that this is a contentious opinion among some), I don’t think that what is necessarily good for humans on the level of metaphysical principles works in the realm of computers. In fact, I know it doesn’t. Not yet, anyway.

As it is, this is a very abstract rationale for the same argument  that Primavera de Filippi advances in much more concrete and practical terms here.

 

 

 

it’s still summertime

Many miles of driving later — I’m in New York!

 

Like many of my friends, I’m finding that both watching and ignoring the media are really painful things to do right now. Looking forward to heading back South in a few weeks, but home is an OK place to be at the moment.

It feels a little tone deaf to draw attention to anything other than all the violence transpiring in our country, but in other corners of reality, life continues… confusing and hard to make sense of, yeah, but still pretty beautiful.

Since I’m in the Hudson Valley, this article by David A. Banks — on the homogenization of small cities, particularly those along the Hudson River —  is striking a nerve.

Also, I really like this — Primavera de Filippi on the need for human intervention in blockchain-based decentralized organizations (in light of the recent~$50M DAO hack).

As she writes: “if the objective is to promote individual emancipation, we must give people the ability—and the responsibility—to shape their own future. As long as there is consensus, people should be able to update their ‘social contract’— even if it has been encoded into a ‘smart contract.’ Any refusal to do so would mean that people have ultimately lost agency to a trustless system that might eventually turn against them.”

Indeed: I’ve also been reading about hypothetical blockchain DAOs that incorporate some elements of AI in them. If such things ever come into existence (and the author of that article thinks it’s inevitable), we’ll probably want some humans in there.

OK, think that’s pau for now. Happy Summer.

it’s summertime

This is my last full week in Asheville!

Next Sunday or Monday I’ll be heading to Columbia, South Carolina, where I’ll be spending the fourth of July. Around the seventh, I start driving to the Hudson Valley to house-sit/see friends and family (including my new nephew, born in May, who I’ve yet to meet) for a few weeks.

Will mostly be landed in Poughkeepsie and driving my car across the mid-Hudson bridge to Rosendale and New Paltz as much as possible… and maybe haunting some strange corners of the Bard College campus, too. Will also probably head into NYC at least once or twice, until the twenty-fourth, after which I’ll be in Manhattan for a few days to become enlightened by the cool freaks and hackers populating the HOPE conference. (By the way, they just posted the HOPE schedule today and it is so good, check it out).

After HOPE I’ll be back in the Hudson Valley for a day or so. Then my car and I will make our way back down to Asheville before July’s end for the sole purpose of moving furniture and boxes to a storage facility in Blacksburg, Virginia, where my stuff will live for about eleven days while I hole up in a hotel nearby (and/or bounce down to South Carolina … or crash in Asheville …?)

I move into my new place in Blacksburg on August eleventh, and some time within the following week, will formally begin the next phase of the research/writing/teaching life at Virginia Tech.

Not sure who’s out there reading this, but to all yall, please send good vibes and traveler’s luck my way! And if it looks like we might cross paths let me know, too. Some of this travel is to spend much-needed time with people I love, and some is to make new friends (provided I have enough energy to do so).

the black peaks (fiction)

I said to him: people these days sense everything that speaks to their hearts must be totally contained, must rise to the surface of things. Nobody can reconcile those hidden staircases in themselves, not with all the debt on their hands.

When we’d get worried about our future together he’d say: intelligence won’t save us. I’d say that we’re pattern-recognizers, decent at prognostication, and he’d reply (cool as ever) that clairvoyance won’t save us either.

We’d both say that we saw meaning everywhere. That the world was our body — until we got so uncomfortable with what was undeniably mundane, what was not part of or designed for us, that it made us depressed.

I told him about the difference between difference and indifference. Indifferent means apathetic in a relative way because… difference connotes meaning? Undiscovered vistas for the mind? Is that right? (Yes, that approximates all this strangeness I’m trying to convey).

Because thinking is always an excursion out toward the new. Not the exotic, the sanitized novelty of the foreign available only to those with disposable  income. What I mean is the alien, the hostile. I’m still getting chills from the thought of those thrills.

***

It’s an election year. You know that old saying, as goes Ohio…

I told him I only dated boys from flyover states. That I liked Midwestern simplicity. I told him I meant that in a nice way. Trust me I hate New York (and by the way, I live in the South now).

***

I want a hero, an uncommon want when every year and month makes the idea more ridiculous. A boy with a mind bright and exact as polished lacquer. On a day so hot that sentences dry on the page long before I write their end and my perception liquifies to near worthlessness this dream boy could still offer a little incisive comfort. Like, go take a cool shower.

Go take a cool shower, I’ll think of the steam rising from your red collar bones up to the crown of your dark wet hair. Fog on the mirror, condensation on my glass. Think about me thinking about that.

***

Now pretend we’re lost on a day hot as this and trying to divine water.  No time to pretend.

So tell me a secret. (I’ve got too many, he’d say).

Then give me your most well-guarded, the one you swore you wouldn’t take to your grave but still might for having never found her, that merciful  trusty harbor, what romantics call The One. Make me her.

Because we’ve got a desperate thirst now, and a climate unpunctuated by rain, this drought that gives us nothing but a production and carnival of mirages. Heat that makes the sky shine like a wedding band, the ring you forged in the fire of your cheap college age mythology (the one you never gave away). Stagger the minutes before this air kills us both. You, Hero, you make my heart stop first.

But maybe the sky would open and rain would save us while the words were on the edge of your lips. Right after you’d already come to a decision about which to reveal. And then you’d go back, home to the black peaks I wrote as your home after we met.

I’ll get a message from you one day, another reminder of what won’t save us. Go out and find him in reality, you’d say, and don’t forget not to think weird things.

 

 

 

immemoria (fiction)

(1)

They’ll laugh when they don’t understand you and they’ll laugh when they do. He was very tired, she could tell by the colors around his eyes, he’s tired and so am I.

I feel helpless against the surveillance state, against the inexorable spread of technology. The worst part is that it’s not fit to write about. Maybe it’ll pierce me to the core, cataloguing every corner of my Self, and an aura of information will crown my head.

We’re the first to suffer these indignities. He told me that he time-traveled to the year 2000 in a dream. To stop the terrorists, to stop the government, or something. Did you succeed? Well, I woke up, he said. I woke up too soon.

Once I read that the Internet makes people glassy. That means it either makes them perfectly transparent or given to revealing themselves through a veil of distortion; I’m not sure which.

I also read that past-life regressionists work by hypnotic suggestion, implanting false memories into their patients’ unconscious minds. They might tell you in a past life you were an escaped slave that died before reaching safety.

If you’re into past lives you should take an interest in epigenetics, too, he said, it’s always relevant in a post-genocidal society like ours.

(2)

Someone told me that we remember our Internet browsing history as if it were a dream.

I remember none of it, he said to me.

None?

Only porn, conversations with other people, and extremely interesting pieces of writing.

In 2016 fiction writing strikes my friends as a disordered language game, its relationship to words as arbitrary as the rapid-fire associations made by the schizoaffective. This is what happens when you lose your intuitive feeling for reality: moments cease to be irreducible. They become atomized in order to make themselves available to a taxonomy. It’s a sort of fascism too. The imagination breaks; storytelling becomes an impossible art.

In 2011 one girl told me that her therapist diagnosed her with “hyperrationality disorder.” She was just intellectualizing herself out of her sadness, he said, and that’s a slippery slope.

I wouldn’t have agreed back then —  I would have protested, taken the explanation as haughty. But I could have if I’d been more wise. I know now, I know I know there’s a way out of this and it’s not through.

“Much has been made of the resemblances between the two totalitarianisms, communism and Nazism. They are undeniable, with this one difference, that the communists committed their crimes in betrayal of the values on which they founded themselves, and the Nazis, in fulfillment of theirs.” – Chris Marker, Coréenes