Monthly Archives: December 2005

It Will Rise

Screenshot of diagram in the game Rhem
I’d be in favor of locking prospective architects or civil engineers in a room with this game and seeing if they could figure it out as a graduation requirement.

I myself am stumped.

Thorndike’s Modesty

Prevented him from translating this: “Stercus asini comedunt mulieres Salernitanae in crispellis et dant viris suis ut melius retineant sperma et sic concipitant” (History of Magic and Experimental Science Vol. 1, 741).

Such innocent, agathokakological times.

1926: Things Like This Tended to Happen–Why?

According to Moscow newspapers, Stalin told the scientist: “I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

In 1926 the Politburo in Moscow passed the request to the Academy of Science with the order to build a “living war machine”. The order came at a time when the Soviet Union was embarked on a crusade to turn the world upside down, with social engineering seen as a partner to industrialisation: new cities, architecture, and a new egalitarian society were being created.

The Soviet authorities were struggling to rebuild the Red Army after bruising wars.

[Via Jodi Dean].

It’s one of the questions, in a particular sense focused on novelistic representations of the British national experience, that I’m trying to answer. You may know Gumbrecht’s book In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time, and it’s always struck me as incredible how he insisted that it was an ordinary year. Dean mentions Agamben. I thought of D&G and De Landa. And then there’s “Mr Ivanov’s ideas were music to the ears of Soviet planners and in 1926 he was dispatched to West Africa with $200,000 to conduct his first experiment in impregnating chimpanzees.

Book and Volume

Nick Montfort, who wrote the (or at least “a”) book on interactive fiction, has recently released Book and Volume, which is set in nTopia, has allusions ranging from Pynchon to Gygax, and feels very PKD–I mean that neutrally. My discussion is going to include some mild spoilers.

I should begin by noting that I’m not sure that I’ve finished the game in terms of achieving the optimal or at least all of the potential outcomes. You are a resident of a community apparently created by a large corporation on a desert plateau. The city exists roughly on a five-by-seven grid and has apartment complexes, a museum, hospitals, police stations, a Starbucks on just about every corner (including three surrounding the “independent” coffee shop) and lots of retail. You work as a sysadmin, sort of. The computers have buttons you can either push or hold. You interact with your laptop by “USE”ing it. Everything that you buy is deducted from your banking account via a chip in your pager, where you receive the periodic instructions that tell you what to do for the day.

As you go about your infantilizing tasks, you receive furtive notices that things are not what they seem. How many of these are actual revelations is open to question. (A character’s prior knowledge is one of the most difficult theoretical problems in interactive fiction, particularly in assessing motivation. Sam Barlow’s Aisle and Adam Cadre’s 9:05 are both inventive explorations of the motivation and prior knowledge problems.)

Though I wrote above that Book and Volume seems Dickian, I think that it’s better described as a criticism of the paranoid tendency in politics in general. You learn about a very sinister-sounding corporate conspiracy–some information coming from a literal tinfoilist–and you manage to escape, at least in one ending, with the use of a “magic helmet,” located in a “Colossal Cave.” The other likely ending, where you accomplish most of your tasks but fail to escape, is a deliberate cliché, to the point of invoking the most famous moment in the (literally) institutional imagination (Question: how does “imagination” instead of “imaginary” work for you there?)

As I read (“play”) it, Book and Volume advises you to reject the ghost whispering to you from your machine. If you replace all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past from what observation has copied there with the pleasures of simplicity, with one villain or one idea (particularly if it came from Slashdot), then that’s nTopia.

Suggestive Quote from Pullman re Grammar of Narrative

From the New Yorker profile:

Because Pullman is an admirer of The Language Instinct, the book by the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, I suggested that, if linguistic grammar is hardwired, perhaps a grammar of narrative is, too. “I don’t think that’s implausible, but we just don’t know,” he said. He didn’t sound as if he particularly wanted to find out, either.

I think it’s without doubt that there is a “grammar of narrative” of some form, though much less is known about it than the grammar of language. In fact, it’s much closer to the famed etymology of “grammar.” The conceit of dust in His Dark Materials seems relevant here.


Thanks to commenter SusanC, I learned of Jim Reeds’ work on the Book of Soyga, recently discovered in the Bodleian after tantalizing John Dee scholars for a long while. The market for forgeries to both the credulous and the wise in this period must have been immense. I wonder how many people now buy thaumauturgical manuscripts (of recent origin, I should specify), and, more importantly, how many people still forge/create them.

Several items of Florida-related news: Brendan and Jenny have a baby. Bradley and Erin’s baby cries on occasion. And Jeff and Jenny [NB: not the same Jenny] are engaged.

Finally, Clancy has gathered several birthing stories together, an example of the type of indexical and analytic commentary function that blogs can perform very well, if they tend not to do so very much at present.

Schrader’s Dominion

During yet another break from grading, I watched the Paul Schrader-directed version of the Exorcist prequel. As you may know, the studio execs thought Schrader’s film so commerically unviable that they hired another director to jazz it up for the release with the screaming and the demonic hyenas, nyeagh. I actually tried watching that version earlier this year and could not.

I found myself curious about Schrader’s Calvinism and his take on the film’s events here, though he didn’t write the script, and, as the indifferent-sounding director’s commentary makes clear, was brought in on the project after John Frankenheimer could not longer work on it. How many films involving the paranormal in some way open with a Nazi-flashback? X-Men is the only other one I can think of right away, though I’m sure there must be others.

If I’m not mistaken, there seems to be a Pazuzu/Lucifer substitution here as well. Demonologically, these have to be considered separate entities, yes, though emulation or adaptation might explain it. A book exploring how supernormal intelligence or limited omniscience is represented in fiction and film has always struck me as potentially useful (know of any?) The original Exorcist, a vastly superior film, has more to work with here; but the suggested ability of the luciferian entity to subcreate the past has interesting consequences as well (cf. The Last Temptation, of course, others?).

Design and the Guide

Last night, taking a break from grading a set of papers on utopia, progress, and technology, I stopped to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember some bad-sounding buzz about this on the internets, and went in expecting to be disappointed. I wasn’t, though. Tim seems to resemble Douglas Adams quite a bit, and I always pictured Arthur Dent as looking like his jacket photo. Versatile Sam Rockwell’s presidential impersonation was not, as the Village Voice review reminds us, terribly subversive; but I found it amusing nontheless. I’d would have liked a nod at the Babel Fish puzzle from the Infocom game, myself, and Marvin should have been clunkier.

The animations of the guide itself, however, were great. I especially enjoyed the vignette about the physicists downstairs.

It Starts with the Loss of a Semicolon

The most famous paragraph in “bad writing discussions”:

Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period, a sentence containing several balanced clauses, any more. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace–by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation, like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision. Language and subject matter cannot be kept separate in this process. The sacrifice of the period leaves the idea short of breath. Prose is reduced to the “protocol sentence,” the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts, and when syntax and punctuation relinquish the right to articulate and shape the facts, to critique them, language is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time. It starts with the loss of a semicolon; it ends with the ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures. (Adorno, “Punctuation Marks.” Notes on Literature. Vol. 2. [Columbia UP, 1991], 95.)

Since you are probably too familiar with the debate this paragraph recalls, I’ll instead consider what aspects of Adorno’s argument might be relevant to academic blogging. People don’t like to read long things on-line. (Sorry, John). I’ve heard many claim that five-hundred words is about their limit for reading blog posts. Comments on posts don’t work very well as a means of fostering careful discussion. Most blogging software, including this site’s, simply publishes a flat list of comments in chronological order. Even the well-known sites that use comment-threading technologies dating from the Holocene have their own problems to contend with, which generally are related to the quantity of their commenters. The various moderation schemes which rely on community involvement rather than the diligent attention of a small number of people are unsuccessful.

Is the link, then, a loss or addition? Is the link a punctuation mark? (Trackbacks too, trackbacks are dead.) How about if links didn’t always go to the same location but either a) went to the original intended location, b) went to a random location, or c) asked the follower to provide a new location? Would this continue to ratify imbecility? Should the posts themselves be reader-editable? The Wiki-ization of blogs, using the technology to filter levels of sediment, commentary, or disputation is one potential solution. But having the content of each post be dynamically changed with each read is better. The much-lamented used, or claimed to use, as I remember, an automated link-generator. The intent of this was to poke gentle fun at the superfluous linking cultures of Slashdot and Kuro5hin, I think, but it has considerable potential. The author of the posts flags several phrases that would then be searched in a variety of databases using the Google and Amazon APIs, scholarly indexes, del.ic.ious, etc. The blogging software would randomly generate links from one of the sources and, using cookies, regenerate them from deeper tiers within the search results for each revisit. If I flagged the phrase “evolutionary theism,” for example, the first visitor might see this article about Frank Norris’s The Octopus the first time and this piece concerning the “dialectical affinities between East and West” the next [Both JSTOR links]. Another user would go find this book about Alfred Russel Wallace on the first visit.

Part of the articulation and shape of the blog is determined by its format. Bradley Dilger has some thoughts on the ubiquity of the grid in web design, and a palimpsest or overlay on a grid is still a grid.



From Roger Luckhurst’s The Invention of Telepathy:

William Stead and Cecil Rhodes plotted a secret society throughout the 1890s that would use Rhodes’ diamond wealth to foster the idea of a worldwide Anglo-Saxon confederation (124)


Stead, who agitated against Parnell (128), seems to have had an interesting career. I look forward to reading his The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes to learn more about this. Conan Doyle published in 1926, a magic year, a two-volume History of Spiritualism. I would have liked to have seen more discussion of the growth of statistical science and telepathy, a subject treated admirably by Ian Hacking in an article available via my citeulike list in Luckhurst’s book; but it was a consistently interesting read. Did you know that Peirce had special interest in the “insight of females” (72)? And “odalic” is used more times than you’re probably accustomed to. Also, James Strachey came to Freud via a footnote of F. W. H. Myers’.

The answer to the question, by the way, is Wilhelm Steckel’s Auto-Erotism: A Psychiatric Study of the Onanism and Neurosis (Trans. James S. Van Teslaar. New York: Grove, 1950). Steckel also uses “puella publica,” both singular and plural.

Today’s Thorndike tidbit: “Plotinus was aware of the sidereal enchantments of Olympius against him” (Porphyry Vita Plotini, cap. 10; V. 1, 300). “Sidereal enchantments” reminded me of Lem’s Fiasco, a great and underappreciated book about which I’d like to write an article.

Thanks to Clancy, I’ve been intermittently reading Wünsch’s Sethianische Verfluchtungstafeln aus Rom (which if you’ll google, you’ll note that there’s apparently something called the International Sethian Movement). One of the defixiones is famously thought to be the earliest pictorial representation of the crucifixion, but it might just also be some cynocephalic joke.

Lacan’s “Excommunication” from The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis quotes Picasso’s “I do not seek; I find” (7). I just thought you might like to know in case you’re looking at this (and, re Lacan, cf. here).

I’ve been involved in an exchange with Steve Fuller at The Valve and at Michael Bérubé’s (“formidable!”). Though I disagree very strongly with Fuller about this, I appreciate that he has posted the lengthy comments he has.

Finally, for now, yes, you are branded (with Meg Norcia enthusiasm!) heretical. Remember, he wasn’t yet twenty-five when he wrote most of those stories.

Lynn Thorndike: A Witticism

“[Galen] disputes the assertion of Epicurus–one by which some of his followers failed to be guided–that there is no benefit to health in Aphrodite, and contends that at certain intervals and in certain individuals and circumstances sexual intercourse is beneficial” (History of Magic and Experimental Science Vol. I, 141).

On an unrelated topic, what famous book about masturbation uses the following remark by Nietzsche as one of its many epigrams–all but one (from La Rouchefoucauld) also from Nietzsche?

“Der Unterlieb ist der Grund dafür, dass der Mensch sich nicht so leicht für einen Gött hält”

Cute Detail from the Post

The CIA inspector general is investigating a growing number of what it calls “erroneous renditions,” according to several former and current intelligence officials.

One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.

Entire story is well-worth a read.

Football and Invention

Provocative article by Michael Lewis, of Moneyball fame, in this week’s NYT Mag about Texas Tech’s Mike Leach and his offensive schemes, which sound as if they make Spurrier’s, about which I heard a little in Gainesville over the years, sound as inventive as “run up the middle three times and punt.” The article almost makes me want to watch college football again, even.