Monday, April 30, 2012

City on the hill (conversation)

      A filthy living room, beer cans scattered like hell's fallen stars, the amps have been left on and are quietly humming to themselves. None of them can hear the buzz over the magnificent ringing in their ears. The room stinks from sweat and spilled beer and they sit or lie upon 4th hand sofas and rescued rugs. All of them drunk; some ride the last crest of pilfered stimulants.
        "We live in a peaceful time" says Jeff  "It's nice to be an old person, but really? Nothing is happening" He says "happening" with a particular emphasis. Draws out the vowels "There are no wars" he continues, "no revolutions. All the art is so...self-centered. Vanity! Anything remotely "authentic" gets picked up and is farmed out by the...corporations. Look: even selling out has lost all meaning when you have Ozzy Osbourne doing FUCKING bank commercials! The concept simply doesn't exist anymore." He's heated, basking in the glow of his oration. Some around him nod in agreement, others have nodded off.
          "But we are living in a revolution." Seth replies after a beat, speaking in his slightly nasal thoughtful drone. All eyes shift to him. "We were fortunate enough to see the birth of the internet, right? The democratization of information and all that." He says this last line self-consciously, almost ironically.
           "But what has that given us?" Jeff again to many nods "Memes?" The word comes off like a cuss "These little meaningless blips of information that pop up, pass around and disappear like amusing quantum particles in the deep vacuum of contemporary culture? What do they mean? What do they signify? Again: Vanity. Sheer emptiness."
            "Just the random noise muffling the signal of the larger movements." Seth comes back at him quick. Where Jeff's rhetoric becomes more and more heated as he develops his argument where it spins out of control on its own centripetal energy Seth's is a cool steel rod balancing on one end "Memes are fun, they foster creativity. They give us an intimate look into what others are concerned about right now. In real time. They are..." He pauses, looks at the ground. "Signifiers of cultural microclimates. If you will."
           The group falls into silence. This is the lull, the post-coital bliss that is forgotten the next morning. Avalon House is one of the few students houses in Westham lucky enough to enjoy the coincidence of neighbors desperate enough in their desire to appear hip that they ignore the weeknight hardcore shows and location on a street busy enough to drown out the the kick drum and amplified bass. Tonight was a relatively raucous show, three local groups that worked the crowd into such a mess that the free pile late 90's model projection television had its screen kicked in and a fixed lamp has been torn from its housing. In the morning a large paint marker tag will be found in the bathroom which extols the virtue of forcibly raping the local police. The writing is wholly illegible and the meaning of the script and the juxtaposition of the crude illustration will remain a point of heated contention between housemates and hangers on during the months ahead.
            As the night wore on and the last of the bottoms of the last drinks were finished the last few stragglers headed home or crashed in an empty room. Seth, Chan and Olivia remained in the living room. The red christmas lights and jury rigged theater lighting set odd colored shadows around the room, offset geometric patterns bounced off the warped windows and played out in the floor which vibrated when 18 wheelers went by. For at least a quarter hour not a word was spoken. Seth pondered on the floor, Chan stared at the ceiling, lazily looked at a poster, nodded off briefly then awoke. Olivia stared out the window, at one point tears welled up in her eyes.
           "Seth" Olivia said. It was a whisper almost, just audible. She didn't wait for a reply but she knew he heard her.
"Whats the hardest thing for a person to do?"
          "The hardest thing?" He kept staring "The hardest thing... Thehardestthingthehardestthingthehardestthinnnnnng" He smiles "The very hardest thing that a person can do is have a truely, truely original thought."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: The burning of the abominable house

      Italo Calvino originally wrote "The Burning of the Abominable House" for Playboy in 1973 which I guess is a testament to the quality of writing that Hef used to support. It runs fairly long for Calvino pulling in at about 14 pages but skips along the whole time at the excited fevered pace he sometimes employs. It follows a man (who is not named until the last third of the story) and his job processing an insurance report for a Mr. Skiller who becomes increasingly important as the story continues. The unnamed character is at the helm of a powerful computer attempting to determine the causes of death of 4 strange characters: Inigo the introverted  aristocratic playboy, old Ms. Roessler the head of the household, Ogiva a beautiful but conflicted young woman and Belindo the giant Uzbek wrestler. These four all lived together in a house and were found dead in the embers after it burned down. The only clues to the causes of their deaths are a book that lists 12 abominable deeds that the 4 may have perpetrated on one another including rape, strangling, seduction drugging in any number of combination. Each character had insurance plans, in some cases multiple, so huge amounts of money stand to be moved. The outcome of the deaths will influence the payouts of the insurance and so the operator has a huge amount of power in his hands. The computer operator indicates that of possible combination of crimes (12 (perpetrator-victim relationships) to the power of 12 (potential crimes)) he must find the one true course of events. He then goes through a portion of the logical combination and begins entering them into his computer. Calvino sets this up as a gigantic logic problem and analyzes the characters and their relationships as he tries to determine the most realistic set of circumstances surrounding the deaths. This results in the operator mentally recreating the possible crimes which are at once fascinating and hilarious.
         It begins to dawn on the character (now known as Waldemar) that Skiller (and maybe even others) may be involved in the situation in addition to the 4 characters. Waldemar begins to see a hidden plan behind Skiller's motives. It is here that the story really kicks into gear. Calvino paints Waldemar and Skiller as rivals in a high stakes game involving their massive computers over the fates of the insurance payouts. A tangible sense of paranoia begins to settle over the story and Waldemar's work takes on a new urgency. Calvino brings up the intersting point that computers can only calculate the variables that the operator inputs and is aware of.
          The pacing of the story is perfect and each time Calvino unfolds one of the many layers of the story we are surprised and enlightened anew. Since Waldemar must understand the relationships between the 4 characters from the little information he has about them as new information comes in we see these characters totally shift: here they are all villains out to murder and rape each other, later innocent victims turned against each other by a manipulative mastermind. Calvino achieves a strange victory with The burning: he manages to make a story about math, computers, and one man's obsession with finding a needle of truth in a haystack of information entertaining and engaging. It is even a little prophetic: written in 1973 Calvino imagines a battle between two minds behind computers years before hackers or even Gibson and cyberpunk.

Found in Numbers in the Dark

Thursday, April 26, 2012


      Isn't it fascinating that two people raised in the same culture, educated equally, maybe of the same occupation can hold fundamental beliefs that are deeply separated? Even mutually exclusive? What is it in us that causes one person to hold vehemently that the world was created over the course of a week some 4000 years ago by a supernatural force while another will "know" for certain that the universe is14 billion years old and that life has developed quite slowly and through the forces of natural selection.
        One funny thing about deeply held beliefs is that while they are vast and far reaching in their influence over us they lay dormant most of the time. Our beliefs subtly influence all the decisions we make, which people we become close to and how we spend our time yet it isn't until they are challenged that they rise to the surface and we begin defending (sometimes irrationally) our slender explanation of reality. I can't help but wonder about the biological correlate(s) of this drive to explain the world, to seek truth. Is there some structure or pattern in us that causes one to favor a particular world view over another?
        In the great debate between religion and science I have yet heard a cry from either side to provide the neural structure that determines our "reality". Wouldn't it clear the argument up mighty quick? It seems that we simply assume that our ability to determine the "truth" of our environment is unquestionable so there is no need to search for a "truth center". I'm not trying to get crazy here but we have to admit that two different people (consider an atheist evolutionary biologist and a young earth creationist) can view the same reality even the very same data then can spin it (sometimes very adeptly) to support their point of view.
        I'm immediately drawn to the fascinating condition known as depersonalization disorder (DPD). DPD manifests in a person as an unshakeable feeling that the entire world around them, or everyone that they know is "fake" or unreal. Fortunately I don't have the condition but it sounds wholly and uniquely unsettling. I've been interested in DPD for a while and the amount of research on it (at least on the neuro side) is relatively paltry. A very good review was published in 2004 on the condition but with little previous research to work with the review makes few big conclusions. This paucity seems to be due to a number of factors including that the disease is not as debilitating as MDD, Schizophrenia or bipolar, that the prevalence of the disorder is low, that it is simply difficult to describe, and I think most importantly because the disorder affects only higher order processes. The review mentions studies that find altered activity in the temporal lobe and a few other (cortical) spots which is (and always has been) very unsatisfying to me. Perhaps the most interesting is that DPD represents an inability to match incoming information with stored information. Could this be extrapolated out to suggest that we build our reality from our memory, that what we believe now, what we find to be true is only a reflection of where we have been and the experiances we have had before?       
             The review does mention a kappa-opioid blocker (enadoline) which is capable of eliciting depersonalization like effects in certain people. This isn't terribly surprising considering another, more famous, kappa-opioid blocker salvinorin A is specifically used by unwitting college freshmen as a quick and decidedly unpleasant recreational drug renowned for its dissociative properties.
       So what if we could find an area (or process, or pathway, or neural oscilation or whatever) that could utterly convince someone of the reality or unreality of a situation? That you could put someone somewhere, have them be totally conscious but have them swear up and down after the fact that they weren't there...even if they remember it perfectly? Or the converse; have someone absolutely convinced of the reality of a fact or event or even world view when it is absolutely false. Very 1984 I suppose. Better dystopia through biology.
Two poems I wrote a few years ago:

Potsherds and Broken Glass
Potsherds and broken glass
the ground is silky strewn
with sections
stolen from the whole

But the bowl is not found
In the clay that surrounds it
But in the space contained;
The idea that maintains it

The vase without flowers
Waits the long hours
to fall off its pedastal
and break.

I've been noticing that a lot of people that put academic areas as their interests (I've noticed this especially with neuroscience and philosophy) are those that know very little about those areas.
  I find it hard to get excited about new literature these days. There are simply too many classics to get through and the current lit scene seems so tainted by a creepy industry driven by sensation and hype. Thus I almost make it a habit to ignore new novels. So understand what it means that when I read a few chapters of Sam Mcpheeters's debut novel Loom of Ruin a few months ago I was so moved by the uncompromising freshness I saw that without a second thought I broke down and immediately pre-ordered it. Mcpheeters obtained an early underground fame as the lead singer of Born Against, an early 90's hardcore band that is apparently a big deal but sounds more or less like Fugazi to me. In the intervening years he has published some 'zines, written for magazines and made art for The Locust. Off the bat I would pin the novel's primary influences as Pynchon and David Foster Wallace but McPheeters avoids being derivative and brings plenty to the table at least in terms of post-modern literature. New characters pop up in every chapter (and the chapters are short, maybe four pages on average with single page chapters not uncommon) but Mcpheeters shows great talent at fleshing the characters out into (mostly) three dimensionality then weaving them together in clever ways.
  The settings for the story are the streets, strip malls and corporate boardrooms of post-9/11 Los Angeles all of which portrayed with plenty of satirical hyperbole. A big part of the novel is spent examining the class divide between the immigrant communities and ultra rich of SoCal society. Trang Yang would rightfully be called the main character of the novel even though many characters get equal or even greater page time than him and he has only a hand of lines of dialogue. Yang is a Hmong immigrant with major frontal lobe loss and the owner of 9 chevron chains in Los Angeles. Yang's brain damage serves to play two beautifully intertwined roles in the novel: for ten years it has made him incapable of feeling any emotion other than rage and as due to a complex series of events involving two events of accidental LAPD brutality against him he has been made totally immune to arrest. Because of these factors any time Yang is so much as slighted he becomes absurdly violent with complete impunity. While not as gory as some of Palahniuk's best/worst Loom of Ruin is an intensely, and ubiquitously violent novel. This violence has a purpose though: when Yang say punches out a Philipinno family in their car for no apparent reason Mcpheeters seems to be asking us "Isn't this what you want to do, deep down?". He challenges us with the violence in his novel as all the fights stem from the frustration, the paranoia and the confusion of a post-modern lives.
  As mentioned before deep at the heart of this novel is the complex situation of immigration and the place of immigrants (legal and otherwise) in US society right now. The vast majority of the characters are adult immigrants to America of Hmong, Czech, Indonesian and Latinos origin. Characters of these races all have to interact in different styles of broken English and through the sieve of their individual cultures. If this book was by a significantly more popular (white) writer It would most likely start a shit storm but I feel McPheeters treads the line between stereotypy and underdogism carefully. McPheeters provides a variety of cross cultural interactions some of which are cringe inducing and others quite marvelous. The few "white" Americans are either corporate executives or in other positions of power and have their own crippling weaknesses aside from poverty. The book reads quick and contains a number (maybe too many) of contemporary corporate cultural references. Its a shame McPheeters felt the need to include these so ofter as they don't add too much to the novel and will only serve to date the book in the future. The "punch" of the writing also waxes and wanes at time as if McPheeters simply wanted to get though a scene to set up the plot for a future section where he then kicks back into gear. Fortunately McPheeters's writing is so fast that I never got bored during his brief lulls. Loom of Ruin is a solid opening for a new novelist and it will be exciting to see where he goes from here.