Mansionism 2: Bungalows

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Mansionism

Though I’m big on climate-resilient futures, I have an ambivalent relationship with density as a means to achieve them. I mostly grew up in company bungalows on generous-sized lots, and loved it. Both the word and the architectural style are Indian in origin. The style originated in feudal-era Bengal and spread across north India during the British Raj. In North Indian languages, the word bangla refers both to the style of house and the Bengali language.

As a prominent Bengali nobleman, Rabindranath Tagore likely had mansion-scale super-bungalows in mind when he wrote (emphasis mine):

Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

I don’t mean to be snarky, but this is the mansion whose narrow domestic walls he was born and raised in:

Jorasanko Thakurbari, now Rabindra Bharati University (P. K. Niyogi, CC-BY-SA-3)

Tagore is an anglicization of Thakur, which is a feudal title like Lord, not a last name. The Tagore family mansion pictured above, Jorasanko Thakurbari, is now part of the campus of Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta, a public university dedicated to a Tagoresque tradition of education.

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Notes: The Marshall Plan by Benn Steil

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Book Notes

I read this next book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, by Benn Steil, in an attempt to take the idea of a “Marshall Plan for post-Covid recovery” seriously.

I’m glad I did because I apparently had an entirely misguided understanding of what the plan was, the context in which it was undertaken, how it worked, and how well it worked.

In the decades since the OG plan arguably saved postwar Europe from collapse, the idea of a “Marshall Plan for X” has become something of a cliche in policy circles, and an event like the Covid19 pandemic is perhaps the most tempting sort of binding for X. I myself tweeted on March 28 that maybe we should shoot for a “bottom-up OODA Marshall Plan” sometime in March.

Now, having read the book, I have to say, the Marshall Plan is perhaps not the best precedent to look at for today’s needs, even though there are elements worth learning from, mostly in the what not to do department. If there are lessons here for post-Covid, they are not the obvious ones.Here is the original thread. On to the notes.

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Epistemic Reserve Notes

The metaphor of learning-as-purchasing pervades language — “are you buyin’ this?”

What is the currency of knowledge exchange?

Perhaps it used to be ‘facts’ — but as explored in Wittgenstein’s Revenge, focusing on facts will never improve public discourse.

We need a new “epistemic currency,” common to everyone. Fortunately, one already exists, and it’s more fundamental than facts: Trust.

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Notes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Book Notes

This next book has probably my favorite so far of my pandemic reads. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe. It’s a strange paired biography of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, adventurer and historian George Dyson. The “starship” refers to the nuclear powered Orion rocket program that Dyson Sr. helped conceive and lead, while the canoe refers to the adventures of Dyson Jr. building and voyaging around the Pacific Northwest in canoes.

Freeman Dyson died on February 28, just before the pandemic, which is how I found this book, via a obitweet by Ross Andersen. Normally, it would have gone straight to my someday/maybe pile as an intriguing but not urgent book. But with the pandemic growing more ominous by the day, somehow the timing felt right for such a liminal read (this is one of the few books that actually deserves that adjective).

I read the book between March 2 and April 4, through the early prepping weeks, and the first couple of weeks of lockdown. It felt pretty poignant to meditate on horizons terrestrial and extraterrestrial while locking down my own life within tight domestic boundaries. Looking back, six months into the pandemic, it was the perfect sort of mental preparation. On to the notes.

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Wittgenstein’s Revenge

We treat facts like they’re “atoms of truth” — small, indivisible, solid — and if you add them up, you get “big truths.”

But like atoms, facts are mostly empty space, and the closer we examine them, the less solidity we find.

It may be time to graduate from the metaphor of facts completely, to a metaphor that reflects a healthier relationship between truth and people.

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Hyperreality Prevails

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Albrecht Dürer. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.
23.5 cm × 29.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To picture a rhinoceros in Renaissance Portugal, consider the unicorn. Whether conflated with the oryx or the narwhal at its southernmost and northernmost coordinates, the unicorn was no less of a shapeshifter than Dionysus, who came from the East―the two sharing goatlike renditions; the axis, as Pliny described it, being “sacred to Bacchus.” The unicorn began its westward march during the Bronze Age, from the Indus Valley; its virtuous, convertible version as horned horse―beguiled and betrayed by a virgin―anchored in Late Antiquity by the Physiologus. The hunt of the unicorn established itself as a Christian allegory, laced with barely suppressed panic menace, through the Middle Ages. Save for a handful of scholars who insisted on the identity of both creatures, the rhinoceros was all but lost to Western memory.

Anonymous. The Unicorn is in Captivity and No Longer Dead. 1495-1505. One of seven tapestries popularly known as the Unicorn Tapestries or the Hunt of the Unicorn. Wool, silk, silver, and gilt. The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Until 1515, there had been no rhinos in Europe since Roman times, when great exotics―animal and human―were consumed as entertainment. The Indian exemplar that arrived in Lisbon from Goa as a diplomatic gift to King Manuel I―and which drowned while being transported in the same capacity to Pope Leo X―was a time-traveller, an alien visitor, a royal hostage. It was beheld by two kings, examined by experts, dispersed by correspondents and inspired a curious woodcut as accompaniment to a self-effacing poemetto by a doctor Penni, whose claim to historical fame was to witness the beast.

Frontispiece of Giovanni Giacomo Penni’s Forma & Natura & Costumi de lo Rinocerothe stato condutto importogallo dal Capitanio de larmata del Re & altre belle cose condutte dalle insule nouamente trouate. 1515. 10 cm × 9,5 cm. Institución Colombina, Seville.

A letter describing the rhino and a[nother] sketch of it wound their way to Nuremberg, where Albrecht Dürer took what best he could from them―and Pliny―to show accuracy is accessory to success. His was not the first impression of the creature, nor―unlike Hans Burgkmair’s coeval woodcut―was his accurate, but Dürer’s rhino was too real for reality to outcompete. Despite the reintroduction of rhinoceroses to Portuguese and Spanish courts in 1577―and their sporadic appearance in art, under sometimes very illustrious names, yet earlier―Dürer’s rhino served as his species’ ambassador to Europe until the Enlightenment.

Burgkmair, Hans. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.

The genius of Dürer’s rhino is partially encoded in its hyperreality. As it slouched westward over centuries, it became recognisable―in its resemblance to the concept of a rhino, and its deviance from it. Scholarly discussion on its skin abounds, with some opinions pointing to it not being hide, but hidden, armoured. After Pliny, King Manuel did try to make his beast combat one of his elephants, and the rhino’s portrait may include its cover as eventual automaton, test subject, neural link, cyborg. Unlike Burgkmair’s rhino, Dürer’s is also unchained, suggesting its identity as unicorn, the animal that can’t be captured lest through virgin eyes―like Dürer’s were. We may not have such eyes again.

The Stack: A Love/Hate Story

For a while now, I’ve been interested in what I think of as “stack research” — investigations into how the high-tech built environment stack works at all levels. I have a milquetoast cyberpunk story to tell you that sheds some light on the matter.

It is about how I retrieved this remote control for my Canon EOS camera after dropping it. Yes, there’s a 2200-word story to be told about dropping something and picking it up. You see, I didn’t drop it on the floor. I dropped it from my 7th floor balcony into the backyard of the neighboring building.

To understand how absurd this story is, consider how simple this could and perhaps should be: in a traditional ordinary city, in say 1980, you’d just go over next door, ring the doorbell, and ask whoever answered if you could go back there and look for it. There’s no story there.

But of course, I live in Los Angeles in 2020, not Ordinary City in 1980. So it has to get more complex.

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Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Book Notes

Back when I started my pandemic deep-dive book-reading binge in late February, the first book I started with was Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. But it’s only now, months later, that I have a clear sense of why it felt salient right now. Hence this out-of-order notes post based on my tweetstorm from February/March.

I read the book partly because I was interested in the life and career of John W. Campbell, and partly because I had this sense that the Golden Age of science fiction (loosely, 1938-1960), understood in context, had a set of important lessons to offer for us in 2020, dealing with the Great Weirding, and the aftermath of Covid. Turns out, my instincts were correct.

What follows are some prefatory remarks, followed by a slightly cleaned-up version of the live tweetstorm.

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Convergent Evolution

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Recognitions

Similarly to how social media collapsed high and low culture into a sinuous, middling unibrow; it made room for the fringe to graze the mainstream while allowing outliers and niche practitioners a foot in the door. Though institutional barriers to entry persist, a new art world has never been more possible. It would however be blinkered to consider it only in terms of finished and sanctified outputs; which often makes parameters of fault lines ripe for the pushing. Because it’s structural, the revolution won’t be televised until it’s irreversible and given us its first, fixed forms. The bet is safe, though: anticipate swerves wherever generalised crisis meets new media, patronage and deep shifts in values. The history of the avant-garde has never been more forward-facing.

My previous blogchain covered the surge in agile independent presses that support experimental writing through fictile business models; with a reach faster and more global than anything even their most explosive predecessors could have matched for ricocheting connectivity. The jury’s out as to whether these presses can or will attain real market and / or mythic penetration, though the signs are favourable (Fitzcarraldo Editions, for instance, was established in 2014 and has twice-proven Nobel olfaction.) Examples can also be found in the digital arts, where platforms like SuperRare permit the social collection of tokenised originals on the Ethereum blockchain. Initiatives like SuperRare are the undertheorised arrowheads in the emergence of complete ecosystems for art production and consumption that may soon give the gallery circuit a run for its money. The decentralised ledger may become the double-entry bookkeeping of art collection.   

Convergent evolution is behind the surge of genres that didn’t hit their unsuspected heights until quite recently; the most outstanding of which may be paleoart, a fascinating case spanning the history of human self-regard from evolution to post-humanism. Its archives are increasingly available in ways that urge the relational study of the scientific and artistic imaginations, their methodological friction and combinatory magic. Paleoart is basically an OS-cum-artform, closer in spirit and experimental nature to automata than illustration. Taschen’s 2017 Paleoart confirmed that it had finally arrived, transcending the scope of the natural history museum and the elementary school library. The synthetic shaping of prehistory through art and science over 200 years may contain important lineaments for speculative representation as we face a sixth mass extinction. The future could be fossil-fuelled.   

Clockmaking: 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Clockmaking

As most of you know, I’m working on (another) book about time, The Clockless Clock, which I’m serializing on the Breaking Smart email list. In the spirit of getting a hands-on understanding of the subject, a while back I decided to build an actual clock as a semi-homemade project. Maybe more than one, but let’s start with one. This one, the ROKR 3D wooden mechanical pendulum clock:

I bought the kit ($45.99 on Amazon in case any of you wants to join me in the build) several months ago, but only just started building it. The thing is almost entirely laser-cut parts on several sheets of wood, so the first order of business was over an hour of painstakingly popping out the parts. It’s like a masochistic version of popping bubble wrap.

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