New E-Book, and a Portfolio Update

I have a new Kindle ebook out: Breaking Smart Archives: Selected Newsletters, 2015-19. This is a sequenced selection of 32 of the better essays from the Breaking Smart newsletter from the last few years, covering the period between the original 2015 Breaking Smart essay collection on software eating the world (also available as an ebook), and my recent pivot of that whole project to a subscription newsletter for serializing my longer projects.

As I’ll be the first to admit, the collection is weirdly choppy, both in form (a mix of essays and twitter-style threads), and content. But it was oddly satisfying to put together (thanks to Alex Wagner for his help), and I did my valiant best to impose some sort of coherent thematic structure onto it.

I think it was satisfying to produce because it logs some fairly significant evolution in my thinking, through a truly turbulent period in the subject matter it covers — the tech world through the Great Weirding. It is also interesting as a record of four years of sense-making effort through a period when a lot of people were just giving up and checking out. I’m kinda proud that I stayed in the fray and wrote over 140 newsletter issues. It was quite hard to make the cuts and pick the 32 to include in this volume. But the result, I think, is worthwhile.

This is my 10th ebook. Arranging all the covers in a 2×5 panel does make for a rather snazzy view of my portfolio of work if you don’t look too hard.

Thanks to some pretty decent covers, this view suggests more coherence to the underlying material than there really is.

Of these ten volumes, one was written as a regular book and is also available as a paperback, five are based on curated collections of stand-alone ribbonfarm blog posts (the bottom row), two are based on email newsletter content (this new one, and Be Slightly Evil), and two are essay collections composed as long-arc series (The Gervais Principle and Breaking Smart: Season One). I haven’t done a word count, but I suspect together they add up to at least half a million words. The oldest material here is over fifteen years old (Tempo is based on work from 2004-16), and the newest is less than a year old (the most recent essay included in BSA is from late last year).

While I think this evolving collection of ebooks captures a lot of my better material, and surfaces some of the more interesting broader patterns, there are definitely big gaps here.

For instance, there are quite a few significant posts from 2012-16, such as Welcome to the Future Nauseous, The Locust Economy, You Are Not an Artisan, On the Design of Escaped Realities, Can You Hear Me Now, and several others that never made it into any collection. And that’s just the ones I can think of, off the top of my head. Blog posts or newsletter issues only get rolled up into ebooks if I can find a coherent thread to weave through them, so material that doesn’t quite fit into the more in-your-face themes tends to fall through the cracks. Maybe I need a collection called Misc. or /etc.

I also haven’t produced any compilations out of my posts since late 2016, a period that includes several personally significant essays (King Ruinous and the City of Darkness, Premium Mediocre, and Internet of Beefs among them). My newish blogchains phase is also not represented.

I’ll get around to fixing some of these gaps at some point, but the ebook series will likely never quite catch up to the gestalt of writing. Some of the gaps in ebook coverage are probably unfixable, which is depressing, and many others are probably not worth fixing, which is even more depressing. This whole thing seems destined to end in a bunch of unsatisfying loose ends, which in a weird, dark way pleases me.

There are many things about the organic evolution of a blogamatic universe that cannot be captured by a set of ebooks, no matter how carefully curated. And that is perhaps as it should be.

I will admit it’s rather tiring to keep up with myself on this front, gathering up my increasingly fragmentary, divergent thinking into these pseudo-coherent curated bundles that keep up the pretense of there being some sort of plan here. So at some level, I’ve kinda given up trying. These ebooks are never going to amount to more than a half-assed archaeological record. A way to make a bit of money while sort of gesturing weakly at accommodating new archaeologists readers who want to explore my writing in relatively completist ways for whatever demented reason. Back in the day I used to call it the absurdity marathon. I’ve stopped calling it that, and people have mostly stopped doing it, but there are still some quixotic souls out there for whom my windmill farm is an irresistibly field of dragons worth slaying.

The writer’s journey here, if there is one, is basically a near-random walk, one that is leaving footprints in the sands of internet bitrot, much of it in a medium — old-fashioned blogging — that many have already written off as dead.

Memento mori, I suppose. One can only start new things, shut down things that aren’t sustainable, and keep going. I’ve sort of 99% decided to shut down Refactor Camp (the conference) unless someone really wants to take it over. I’m also personally withdrawing from running the Refactor Camp Mastodon server (refactorcamp.org), but someone may be taking that over. Earlier this year I also shut down the Tempo blog (though I imported all the blog posts from that here).

Speaking of keeping on keeping on, Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond blog on Wired is shutting down, and Warren Ellis keeps writing about projects starting and dying. The writing life is full of creative destruction, whether you’re a D-list blogger or an A-lister award-winning novelist or comic-book writer. There’s no escaping it.

Weirdly enough, at the other end, that of extreme fragmentation, over the last few years Twitter has turned into a really useful way for me to commit to, and track, long-term activities spanning multiple individual projects. I now either run or help run eight twitter accounts. I took a shot at organizing them into a 2×2 that has lately been particularly fertile for me: realist vs. escapist, useful vs. useless.

This is in a way a much more complete view of everything I am up to, as a bundle of live log-level streams. But obviously it’s also much harder to keep up with. I think some of my best thinking in the last few years has happened on twitter, particularly on my main @vgr account, but I’ll be damned if I can ever unravel that mess of threads good and bad, shitposts, and bon mots.

The quadrant that is proving most resistant to assimilation by the Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe (RBU) is the Useless-Escapist quadrant. But I’m sneaking up on it, with help from some collaborators. My buddies Dan Schmidt and Zac Reid are helping me creep up on it from one flank, via a 3D maze game we’re developing. On the other flank, the Scorpio Season podcast I’m doing with Lisa Neigut is helping me creep up on it with a strict weekly regimen of alphabetical-order audio shitposting.

My newest and youngest personal activity stream commitment is the @basicmansion twitter account, at the heart of the escapist+useless quadrant, where my personal Everest lies. This is sort of my stake in the ground for a somewhat sprawling science fiction project that began with my short story The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible in 2016. At the moment, 90% of it only exists as notes.

One day, maybe I’ll figure out how to think about the gestalt of my life and it will all make sense. On that day, I should probably retire. But until then, this chaotic mess roles along, trying to make sense of itself one ebook at a time, one twitter account at a time, one new digital medium at a time.

Whistler’s Giantess

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Recognitions
James Abbot MacNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. Oil on canvas. 144.3 cm x 162.4 cm. 1871. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

In Mr. Turner (2014), Mike Leigh’s lambent portrait of the artist as an old man, the protagonist sits for a daguerreotype. Behind the camera is an American prosopon, whose primordial photographs are advertised to “stand the test of time and climate.” Intentionally or otherwise, the scene establishes a passing of the torch between light-wranglers. It also anticipates the appearance of Turner’s unnatural successor, the American James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, whose technique a sitter once described as developing “a negative under the action of […] chemicals.”

Whistler would not set foot in London until 1859, eight years after Turner’s death but, when he did, the groundwork would be more or less prepared for a career agonist. A cosmopolitan whose scope extended from the US to Russia through Chile, Whistler would systematically be [at] the centre of the world, at a time when European art was barely postindustrial. Wagner may have held court at Bayreuth, but Whistler forged, and bridged, the early modern transatlantic artworld.    

He refashioned his biography and cultivated his persona into something he could set loose against critics and patrons, carving costly inroads into the contractual and public perceptual domains. Though his victory against Ruskin earned him no more than a farthing, bankruptcy and a Venetian exile, it wasn’t Pyrrhic by any epochal measure. (The same cannot, alas, be said for Whistler’s frenemy, Oscar Wilde, whose libel suit proved nothing short of suicidal.) With the Royal Academy and its satellite salons still in the game of academicism and its malcontents, he became adept at solo showmanship. As with his private exhibitions, his Peacock Room was not decor but installation.

James Abbott MacNeill Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll. Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood. 1877. 421.6 cm × 613.4 cm × 1026.2 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Whistler’s portraits pack terroir and not just atmosphere. The best example of this is Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, the famous painting of his mother. No print can do it justice. At a nearly square 144.3 cm x 162.4 cm and mounted on a frame of the artist’s own design, it is in every way heroic. (It’s hardly a coincidence that Thomas Carlyle would become the subject of Arrangement…No. 2.). Though touted as some manner of hieratic icon, the mother of a younger god is but an older goddess, no less static than a crocodile. Behold, the Baudelairian giantess in/action.

Early in his career, Whistler shared a mistress with Gustave Courbet: Joanna Hiffernan, she of The Origin of the World. Here she is again, revised, revisited, as her antithesis, in chambered and exploratory greyscale.

James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. Oil on canvas. 215 cm × 108 cm. 1861-62. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Leaking into the Future

Liminality is hard to navigate, and one can be forgiven for flailing gracelessly when attempting to do so. What makes me impatient though, is people not even recognizing liminality when it is all around them. People continuing to march into non-existent futures, like non-playable characters (NPCs) in video games making walking motions with noses pressed up against impenetrable walls. When there’s masses of such people all around, the liminal turns into the surreal. I made up a visualization to try and get at this sense of surreal mass obliviousness to liminality.

It’s not complete, and you could argue with the particular patterns of forks and merges I have illustrated, but the important thing is the topological structure, and the cowpath-like tracks leaking away from the entire paved system, in a fundamentally new direction. History hasn’t just been knocked off course; our normal processes for constructing history have been knocked out. What I called the Plot Economy in my March 9 post (has it already been 2 months? Wow!) has shut down. Collectively losing the plot means our ability to keep a constructed sense of historical time going has shut down.

Instead of “progressing” or “declining” into a future mapped out over decades, from within the safety of grand narratives shared with millions, we are leaking into the future, one day at a time, sans narrative support.

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Alamut, Bosch, Gaddis: Introduction to Epochal Art

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Recognitions

I

On the noon of the seventeenth day of Ramadan, 1164, Hassan II, the hereditary Imam of the Alamut State founded by the Order of Assassins under Hassan-i-Sabbah, immanentised the Eschaton. 

In a bravura display of apophatism, he declared quiyāma ―the Islamic Resurrection― with the abrogation of Sharia law; inviting the Nezāri potentates to gather ―with their backs to Mecca― and partake with him in a feast of pork and wine. In normal circumstances, this would have been haram, but Paradise is outside time and so without sin or law. In the state in which nothing is true and everything is permitted, Apocalypse Now coincides with Paradise Regained. The Imam’s worldbreaking banquet prefigures other tropes we may be more familiar with: Blake’s fearful symmetries, Nietzsche’s balls-to-the-wall transvaluation, Burroughs’ “disruption of reality” as “literal realization of art.” 

II 

The subject of this blogchain will be this paradisiacal liminality when captured in the amber of art. A commonality of cultures is they all have dragons: objets de vertu that congeal at moments and in ways that can insinuate complete epochal gestures. From Imam Hassan’s milleranian post-Islamic happening to Millenial work that is emerging as we speak, the epochal perspective/scale, brought to art, can furbish insights even parsimonious criticism cannot. Beyond a work’s aesthetic and surface historical merits, an epochal approach to art analysis will probe at its memetic and mimetic outer reaches―what it means because it rhymes. Its concern is resonance. 

Take, for instance, the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights ―its garden proper, the apple of the tryptich’s eye. In a way that echoes Hassan’s suspension of belief, it may be the greatest of the stranger apophatic moments in all Western painting, in that it comes at God from the front, from the back, and sideways. The Garden is to its picaresque epochal sentiment what Wittgenstein’s qualifying of Weininger with an ~ did for the latter’s name: used it as mirroring device. A mirror doesn’t merely reflect, it multiplies infinite and infinitesimally at once. The nictitating membrane of the world is drawn; its giveaway and gate a mise en abyme, meta. 

In this sense, the @boschbot account on Twitter may be doing more to further our appreciation of Bosch’s Garden than most recent scholarship on it has, by exposing and exploiting its extraordinary detail through a telescopic lens, in an approach that allows fellow observers to engage the work on a precritical, almost prefrontal level, all while opening up new and previously unseen dimensions to an artwork that had become something of a floating signifier through mediatic and memetic overexposure. As much as this enriches art by association, familiarity breeds indifference, the most unimaginative form of contempt. In opposition to this cultural assimilation, @boschbot plumbs the Garden’s enigmas and restores its mystery, that is to say, an element of its authority, in a true feat of auratic restoration. It is also a case of instinct ―knowing how to see― trumping expertise ―knowing what one’s looking at―, a kind of imposition of innate, originary lares over connate, conventional mores.

III

In 1955, William Gaddis published The Recognitions, which is, among other things, the greatest novel ever written on the art and act of painting. Structured as a triptych, it investigates the spectrum between the original and the mimetic, the djinn of imitation, the real and the fake, and the real in the fake, ad nauseaum. It is, as you may well imagine, another of our vertiginous epochal artifacts: the one to lend its name, and spirit, to our catoptric inquiry on artworks that have passed the Turing test of time across the ages.  

Quarantine Art

I tweeted a sketch of the view from my balcony, from an abandoned project to make a proper art piece, and slashdottir made this rather snazzy quick study out of it. Sometimes twitter is very liminal. Also check out people’s interesting art projects.

Predictable Identities 27: Craving and the Pill

This entry is part 27 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Kaj Sotala suggests a predictive processing-informed model of suffering in which a mind is stuck oscillating between two unpleasant interpretations of the world, each one disconfirming the other’s prediction in a painful way. 

Normally, a brain confronted with two contradicting views will pick the one matching incoming evidence and discard the other. But the brain also generates cravings, and they can break this resolution process.

Desires are manifested in your brain as a prediction. When you want pizza you predict the sensation of pizza in your mouth. If there’s no pizza currently in your mouth you can resolve the discrepance in two ways. Though your action, by grabbing a slice, or by updating and giving up on the pizza prediction. A craving is a desire that you can’t give up on, one that comes from a place too deep to overwrite with disconfirming evidence.

When you’re craving [money/sex/power] you predict strongly that you have them, to the point of almost hallucinating the orgy on your private jet. The lack of a jet or a confident plan to acquire one disconfirms the prediction. But then the craving rises again and overwrites the realization that your goal is unattainable, each prediction and disconfirmation creating mental suffering in an ongoing cycle.

There are two ways to break the loop of craving and suffering. One is to fulfill the desire, which works great (until another craving arises). But there’s another way: if you can convince yourself utterly that what you’re craving is unattainable, then your brain will suppress the loop at the stage of predicting the craved outcome. You will never get what you wanted, but the suffering will ease.

The internet has a term for it: blackpilled. The black pill must be completely impenetrable to work. If your brain can imagine even for a second that your craving is satisfied the cycle of suffering will continue. 

It is almost impossible for people to cleanse their soul of hope entirely unless in the grips of severe depression. Direct evidence of the world is too noisy to conclude anything with such certainty. The black pill requires a community and an identity reinforcing it, to convince one fully of their hopelessness.

Liminality?…Well, there’s a free sample!

One of my favorite jokes in Herge’s Tintin comics is a bit in Prisoners of the Sun (1949), where the Thompson twins ask Captain Haddock what’s in a pile of sacks on the dock labeled “guano.” The captain umms and ahhs a bit, but then a seagull poops on one of the Thompson twins’ hats, and the Captain brightens up, having been handed the perfect short answer: “Guano?… Well, here’s a free sample!”

For those wondering why sacks of bird droppings would be on a dock, guano was once a major industrial commodity, an input for nitrogen fertilizers and explosives. The rise of Chile saltpeter as an alternative, and the adoption of the Haber-Bosch process after World War 1, slowly made it obsolete.

A few years ago, I was challenged by a Twitter friend to explain liminality, and I came up with a thread in response that I think is still roughly right. But if I were asked today, I would gesture vaguely at the world around and say, “Liminality?… Well, there’s a free sample!”

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Now Reading: Pandemic Edition

Just updated my Now Reading page. I have suspended my regular reading queue for the most part (except for continuing to work through Terry Pratchett) and made a special section for Pandemic reading. Here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve been reading/plan to read, and why.

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Pandemic Dashboard: 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

Unanticipated Consequences

Accidents down, so insurance companies refunding some premiums. Billboard advertising down because nobody out to look at them. Crime down.

Beyond Fat and Lean

Food getting tossed at farms while people face shortages. Toilet paper panic is partly legit because office/commercial toilet paper supply chain is different.

[Read more…]

Pandemic Dashboard: 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

Flattening the Curve

We’ve moved on from the innumeracy edition to the “spot the inflection” phase as bureaucrats everywhere try to solve for the flattening and claim success.

[Read more…]