Tag Archives: too strange to be made up

Dear SFPD Motorcycle cop on 3rd Street, yesterday:

Here’s what you should have done. You should have said, basically, “Oh, don’t worry, this is a just a motorcade coming through in a few minutes. Go on back to your car, and you’ll be out of here in a jiffy.” You could have even added “Hope you feel better soon!” if you wanted to be cordial. I kind of remember police officers doing that, when I was a kid.

When I left my daughter and walked across 3rd Street I clearly didn’t know what was happening or why the street was closed. I didn’t pull out and just drive away as a courtesy to you, by the way, a courtesy I won’t make the mistake of extending to you again. I came up and told you I had a medical condition and I was worried about getting to a doctor’s appointment. Instead of telling me it would only be a few minutes, or even why the street was closed, you grabbed my arm and tried to hold me down. My concern immediately went from making my appointment to my scared shitless 9 year old, watching me struggle with the police across 3 lanes of 3rd street.

I told you my daughter was across the street; you ignored me, and while you told me to stand still, you still didn’t bother to tell me why you were tightening your grip on my arm and yanking me away from my daughter. I admit that when I told you again that my daughter was across the street from me I was probably getting louder. I don’t like being forcibly separated from my daughter when I don’t know what’s going on, and neither does she. Eventually, as this was turning into a full blown physical altercation, and my daughter was panicking and trying to figure out whether to run to her mother, I was reduced to screaming that I had to get back to my daughter before whatever was about to happen on this street happened, which you still hadn’t revealed to me. You let go, pushed me, and told me to stay with my daughter. I did in fact run over to my daughter and stay there.

Once again, all you ever had to say was “Don’t worry, this is only going to take a couple of minutes.” You certainly never had any reason to lay hands on me at all, much less in response to a worried question.

Now my daughter is terrified of you. It’s frustrating to know that if she’s ever lost or in trouble, instead of going to the police, she’s probably going to run and scream if an officer approaches her to help. All because she’s watched the police start physically assaulting and screaming at her mother for asking a question. Not a crime, or a crime scene, or even a protest, just asking a question about getting to the doctor’s office.

This feels like it should be a parody piece, some extreme of what policing would be become if it were not merely out of control, but non-sensical and random. Instead, it’s just a record of Tuesday.

The usage and abusage of internet quotes

While watching Twitter like a crack addicted monkey for new reviews of The Pale King I noticed an often retweeted aphorism:

“Health is the greatest of all possessions; a pale cobbler is better than a sick king.”

Of course, pale doesn’t make any sense there, it’s a hale cobbler. “Pale cobbler” gets about 2,300 hits on Google, replace with hale, and you get three. On the other hand, the original quote is actually this:

“Health is the greatest of all possessions, and it is a maxim with me that a hale cobbler is a better man than a sick king”

Which gets you a healthy 11,220 hits on Google, and is attributed to 18th century Irish playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe. A further goog of Isaac Bickerstaff “pale cobbler” gets you only 173 people correctly attributing the incorrect quote.

The things I keep wondering about those first 2,000, and even more the 173 more learned attributers, is are they wondering what the heck the author meant by pale cobbler? And at what point on its putative growth curve will it pass the real quote, and become another “I could care less” aphoristic mind fuck?

This is the folk version of things like the medireview incident in the early 21st century, wherein a yahoo mail filter invented a new branch of historical academia that took a while to get caught and corrected. I suppose this has always happened, but in the age of the net it can happen and get corrected faster. I still wonder when enough of these, obviously enough laid along the paths of the net will get people to develop a healthy suspicion about the pale cobblers of the medireview when they come across them.

Review: “The Island of Lost Islands” by Tim Maly

Tim Maly’s recent book on the afterlives of utopias is in turns interesting, deep, frustrating, indulgent, and in the finest tradition of Borges, nonexistent.

Maly adopts a wistful tone of analysis, and Borges is again a pretty obvious influence on that language. And while Maly’s insights are pretty amazing, I felt like he cherry picked his examples a bit. Let’s be honest– some of the examples that inform us of the nature of dead utopias have sunk to the bottom of the sea, a fact he glosses over. At points I was left saying “Come on Tim, you can do better than that! Dive a little!” while people wondered who I was talking to.

But I don’t want to tear this book down, I want you to imagine yourself reading it. Flaws aside, he recreates a mental landscape of lost dreams that bewilders and excites in turns. The narrative winds its way up mountains and plunges down cliffs in a manner that really does evoke actual nausea, but in a good way. These afterlives deserve the physical act of grief, and Maly lives up to that. (For this reason I recommend no more than 15 pages at a time, and not too close to mealtimes. Also, The Island of Lost Islands doesn’t mix well with Flagyl or other photosensitive antibiotics, which I found out the hard way. Oops.)

That it reaches so high is one of the things that frustrates me about Island, because you’re left always wanting it to reach a little higher. Yes, there’s echos of Collapse, but more as if you were to imagine it as a LARPing manual than a pop-geo-anthropology text.

Close your eyes and read Tim Maly’s Island, let it flow through you, change you, and possibly cleanse you digestively. It will let you see utopia in a new, beautiful, and heartrending way. But for fuck’s sake, don’t buy it. Not a word is true.

50 years of cyborgs: I have not the words.

Prologue

(This is a post for Tim Maly’s #50cyborgs project, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the word cyborg entering the language. He starts the project here, and collects it here.

For a sense of place to my moment, I will tell you I am on a wireless keyboard, swinging on a homemade swing on the first floor in the three story high living room of the person that would be my it’s complicated on Facebook if I had a Facebook.

My computer itself is on the second floor. As I type these words into the air I have no way of knowing for sure that they are not ephemeral, nothing to confirm my progress and therefore distract me from my thoughts. I strongly suspect that for all the weirdness of the moment, they are (in fact) among the least ephemeral words penned by mankind, the majority of which are lost to the vagaries of mulberry bark and vellum, then paper, then pre-web computing.

We are sitting in a maker/artist community in a converted factory in Oakland called the Vulcan, one of the many ground zeros for the Maker movement. We are positively surrounded by burners and recently returned from Burning Man ourselves, where we spent a week in the desert pouring our own and our society’s resources into a weeklong art festival and dance party, which is meant to vanish without a trace shortly after Labor Day.

He (the Facebook “it’s complicated”) is playing an xbox game where little cartoon zombies trundle into his yard trying to eat his brain while he quickly plants transgenic killer plants (with eyes) that do things like shoot giant peas at them. It’s called Plants vs Zombies. It’s very popular right now, taping into the historical moment’s zeitgeist of anxieties. After all, in an automated society that consumes knowledge workers, what’s a better symbol than a shambling soulless throng that wants to eat your mind and make you irrevocably one of them? As for the transgenic killer plants on the perfectly manicured American backyard lawn as tower defense, that’s so rife with cultural suggestion I get dizzy at the thought of looking too closely. And, to be honest, a touch nauseous.

So in a way, I feel whatever I can tell you about the extraordinariness of the cyborg might be a bit mooted by the strangeness of our present moment. If we’ve learned anything in the last 50 years, it’s definitely that there’s more that one way to skin the culture’s collective cat.)

The early vision of the cyborg was about man changing himself in preparation for his rocket age. It was about “the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space,” according to Wikipedia, right now. Man would add to and modify the body to make the impossible doable, to ease the way into an environment of extreme hostility. It was all bionic arms and lungs and artificial exo and edo skeletons, powered jump suits and then brain computer interfaces as we went on talking about it. But the Space age was DOA, it never really made the changes we’d dreamed up, and by the time my post-moon generation was growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was all looking like a wash.

But a cyborg revolution was happening the same year Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term. A hostile environment was being tamed by a newly and artificially capable people. It escaped notice and critique though, because the modified weren’t men, and then environment wasn’t space. The modified were women, and the environment was men. The women of the 60s were the first to modify and control their uteruses. (Yes, menfolk, you can be a pretty brutal environment.)

Two years before the We Will Go to the Moon speech, Enovid, the first birth control pill, hit the market. The IUD came into its own in 1968 with the copper T, the year before we landed on the moon. While the Jetsons were giving us a space future to look at, the heirs of Margaret Sanger were quietly destroying the social institution it portrayed. And for all the attention and resources the Space Race consumed, and it consumed a world, the world was changed by the women freed from the tyranny of biology and no longer (as) subject to the whims of men.

Over 100 million women worldwide are probably using an IUD right now, though it’s really hard to count that kind of thing. Each is mechanically modified to invisibly control biology with near perfect success. It’s the most popular form of reversible birth control, though the number of women using IUDs is still smaller than the number of women sterilized, made forever into unmothers-to-be by surgery that otherwise leaves them strong, healthy, and invisibly different. Last citation I could find estimated 138 million women sterilized in the developing world, millions more in the OECD. Yet millions more are using pills, sponges, creams, gewgaws, doodads and even female condoms to exist in a world full of fucking and no particular desire to shoulder an equal burden of childrearing afterwards.

And then, in the last 50 years, women got seriously uppity. “Cyborgs not only disrupt orderly power structures and fixed interests but also signify a challenge to settled politics, which assumes that binary oppositions or identities are natural distinctions.” – ripped from context, but you can google it with the quotes intact. What single bit of technology has changed society more in so short a time? She looks so innocently fuckable, but what cyborgs were so quickly ubiquitous, and so invisible?

I don’t think we’ll ever notice the age of cyborgs, because we do these things one at a time. We roll them out in small ways, and increment them across society. We quietly piece together a know-everything machine, make its connections invisible, then put it in a small box we built as a talk-to-anyone-machine, and carry it around with us. (The first and ultimate prosthetic of the species being community, and so our most powerful magics will always be incantations to one another.) We hand out drugs to everyone that make them more ready for capitalism as a warm, tasty beverage. While we talk about powersuits and armies of robots, we get into metal boxes next to explosion chambers and extend our proprioception to their edges. We do this so that we can then hurtle down ribbons of death we’ve built all around the landscape at speeds not naturally found very often this side of celestial interaction. We call this commuting and consider it one of the most boring things humans do.

An Aside

(Despite all my cyborgian features and posthuman ways, my augmented senses and depleted neurotransmitters, my postmodern sexuality and self-conscious interaction with my environment, I still have to remove the waste of bacteria from my mouth by scraping it off with a soft brush and a thin string. I still have to remember to pull the string below the gumline on both sides of each tooth everyday of my life. I’m king of annoyed that I can have a phone with GPS and even an interface to countless mechanical turks, I can have a Northpaw and I can control my fertility, I can fly anywhere in hours with money I don’t have on a plastic card and be merely contracting rather than earning or stealing, but I have to scrape my teeth in an ever losing battle to keep them, still. I mean, seriously, WTF?)

It seems like the discussion of cyborgs in the time since 1960, echoing the discussion of robotics, bounced between news of DARPA and DARPA-like Sci-fi projects none of us will ever really see and Critiques on how We’d All Been Cyborgs, Really, Since We First Picked Up Sticks. I want a middle ground. I want to say there are inflection points where the scale of things changes the nature of what they do. And my fucking smartphone is not a stick, even if it uses the same neural infrastructure in me. I want to say I will beat you with a stick if you say it is, which is funny and you know I’m joking because despite the fact that I am talking to you I am not even in the same room as you. So you know that at my worst, I would have to use the phone to call you and make stick slapping noises.

We need new language to talk about the shit we don’t see. Cyborg is a start, but it was coined by the very forces of big phallic rocket male domination that cyborgs were about to fuck up in the darkened alleys of the collection consciousness. Like, that day. We need language that lets us talk about the terrorism of little changes. Be they good or bad, they are terrible in aggregate.

Also 50 years on, we need another word, one that describes the inverse of the cyborg, to describe what we are filling the world with. What I mean by inverse is this:

In 2006 in a NATO report I found the description of a particular anti-coalition IED encountered in the field in Iraq. It works like this: the insurgent digs out a hole in the wall, and plants a grenade sans pin there. (S)He (When the hell is English going to get a gender neutral pronoun to match our newly gender neutral roles, damnit?) Anyway, s(he) pastes an anti-coalition propaganda poster on top of it. When the American soldier comes along and tears down the poster, (s)he pulls the lever. There are many booby traps, what makes this one of interest is that part of its mechanism is a specific frame of mind in its victim. This is a device augmented with an organism. It’s not just, or even mainly incorporating the mind of its creator from the moment of its creation, but the mind of the victim in the moment of its function.

But we don’t have a word for organically augmented machinery, even though they are fast filling the new and vacated niches of the environment. It’s there when an API calls up Mechanical Turk, it’s there when Google uses the soft, human touches of links to create meaningful relationships for an otherwise indifferent server farm to traverse. It was noticed even in 1968, next door temporally to the copper T, by Alan Kay: “The user at the console is considered to be inside a process description which in turn is interior to the FLEX system and environment.” It turned out we didn’t always have to obviously merge with our machines to become cyborgs, and the reverse holds. They don’t have to merge with us to become something more, something augmented beyond what they could have possible hoped to contain within their endogenous mechanics. They can just use us, too. But how do we talk about it without sounding mad when we have to reuse language meant for other things?

We have not the words.

—–

With many thanks to @genmon, @mala, @sgtkeso, and @tezcatlipoca for their eyes, ears, and minds.

When Copyright was Serious F****** Business

Via Patry, Albrecht Dürer’s idea of a copyright notice:

Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.

But that to my mind still doesn’t have quite the stinging crazyjuice of this copyright warning specifically for Jews in Venice, circa 1623:

We have agreed to the reasonable and proper request of the worthy and honored Master Salamon Rossi of Mantua (may his Rock keep and save him) who has become by his painstaking labors the first man to print Hebrew music. He has laid out a large disbursement which has not been provided for, and it is not proper that anyone should harm him by reprinting similar copies or purchasing them from a source other than himself. Therefore, having seen the license granted by His Excellence, the Cattavero (may his glory by exalted), we the undersigned decree by the authority of the angels and the world of the holy ones, invoking the curse of the serpent’s bite, that no Israelite, wherever he may be, may print the music contained in this work in any manner, in whole or in part, without the permission of the above-mentioned author or his heirs for a period of fifteen years from this date. Nor is any Jew permitted under the terms of this decree to buy from any person, whether he be of our nation or not, any of these works without the permission of the above-mentioned author, who is to indicate by some special mark that he has consented to their sale by another party. Let every Israelite hearken and stand in fear of being entrapped by this ban and curse. And those who hearken will dwell in confidence and ease, abiding in blessing under the shelter of the Almighty. Amen.

Seriously, the curse of the serpent’s bite sounds like the baddest-ass DRM evar.

Cyborgian Mates

My friend Matt Dickerson recently told me of the existence of centaur chess, alternatively called cyborg chess or, harder to google, advanced chess. Advanced chess is Kasparov’s pretty lame name, so I’m going to called it centaur chess. It’s a simple concept. Instead of trying to beat Deep Blue, Kasparov decided to join him.

I read a lot of essays of the general form of When We Can Engineer Our Babies, Will We Be Human Post Feminist Cyborg Identity Constructs, or Post Human Post Feminist Cyborg Identity Constructs? and they generally don’t do much for me. I don’t understand why academics and thinkers feel like they need sci-fi technologies to start talking about what augmentation is going to do to us, given how much is floating around not only in our present, but our past. Beyond that, I find what we’ve already done to be difficult enough to understand, implication-wise, that we can chew on that a good long while without having to speculate about how as yet undeveloped technologies might change society.

Seriously, keeping up with now could be a full industry on its own.

Centaur chess is yet another example of the interestingness of now. The computer and human play as a team, building on each other’s strengths in a kind of UI enabled decision making synthesis. The consensus seems to be the computer is good at tactics, and the human is good at strategy.

There were briefly tournaments, but these floundered. I suspect this is because while the point for Kasparov was to become the perfect chess player, it’s not clear that watching perfect chess players would be any more fun that watching a very well maintained threshing machine. We enjoy sports because they are imperfect.

What makes more sense is that several sources (including my friend Matt) have suggested that centaur chess has quietly taken over correspondence and online chess. Being the more perfect player is a lot more fun than watching. Scores of people out there are learning how to augment- to surrender the weaker parts of their ability to their computers and reintegrate the ability of the computer into a new identity without surrendering their egos. We do this all the time with certain mental capacities, but not the very special mental areas we think of as things like smartness or wisdom. That’s changing now. It bodes ill for other games like poker, and well for expanded human capacity.

1000 Ledes n + 13: Auto-Biography

She was about 11 when the voice started in her head. It never claimed to be God or the devil. It never issued instructions, neither criticized nor praised her. The voice didn’t talk to her directly, not even once. It didn’t react when she screamed back. It narrated. It never stopped.

As she would run to her room and stuff her head in her pillow, wetting it with tears and feeling it yield against the tensed muscles of her face, the voice would continue explaining. “She ran to her room, and threw herself on her bed, stuffing her face in her pillow.” When she finally audibly shouted “Shut up!” in the silence of her room, the voice would say “She shouted ‘Shut up!’” and wait for her next move.

Dual marketing

Ever since my days of developing fast cal/oz/$ estimates at the Safeway on Santa Monica Ave in an attempt to keep myself, physiologically speaking, a going concern, I have been suspicious of the way pet food gets labeled. Today I grabbed a can of my wonderful hostess’ canned food for her cat. I delivered half to the dish on the floor, and caught sight of the name- Grammy’s Pot Pie. Pot pie? When did cats get so into pastry? When did Grammy start including the mellow white meat of mice in her dishes? In short, WTF?

I know the theory- anthropomorphizing pet food is yet another way to separate middle class suckers from their yuppie food stamps. It makes well heeled pet owners feel that if they really loved their pets they’d buy them all the food an omnivore could ever want, despite most house pets complete lack of an omnivoracious digestive system.

I always thought there was more to it than that. Part of it was the suckers, sure, but I’ve always thought it was a brilliant case of (admittedly grim) dual marketing. Beginning in the late Reagan era’s special treatment for the poor the way pet food was presented seemed to be changing. High calorie count? Low glycemic index? Vitamin additives, and a label with a picture of a Thanksgiving meal on it? What more could a septuagenarian on a social security fixed income ask for? Pet food is suspiciously labeled for human consumption, and humans do consume it. Why not compete for that market segment?

If you think this is too bleak to be the case, and I am ridiculous and paranoid for thinking it, I present Grammy’s Pot Pie, Smaller Serving Size 5.5oz.

The smell of Grammy’s house and her famous chicken pot pie is an unforgettable comfort. Our family loves dogs and we thought it was about time to share this great taste with yours. These tender chunks of chicken are sure to make your dog beg to go to Grammy’s, even if they have to eat their vegetables. Grammy’s Pot Pie is prepared with Chicken, Red Jacket New Potatoes, Carrots, Snow Peas, & Red Apples.

Guaranteed Analysis
Crude Protein (Min.) 9.00%
Crude Fat (Min.) 4.00%
Crude Fiber (Max.) 1.00%
Moisture (Max.) 81.00%

Calorie Content
1045 kcal/kg – A 13.2 oz. can provides 394 kcal of metabolizable energy, calculated value.

Ingredients:
Chicken, Chicken Broth, Chicken Liver, Fresh Red Jacket New Potatoes, Fresh Carrots, Fresh Snow Peas, Fresh Red Delicious Apple, Potato Starch-modified, Olive Oil, Calcium Carbonate, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Tripolyphosphate, Flax Seed Oil (For Omega -3), Natural Caramel Color, Poultry Seasoning (Thyme, Sage, Rosemary), Yucca Schidigera Extract, Choline Chloride, Salt, Lecithin, Zinc Amino Acid Complex, Mixed Tocopherols, Iron Amino Acid Complex, Vitamin E Supplement, Manganese Amino Acid Complex,Vitamin B12 Supplement, Vitamin A Acetate, Copper Amino Acid Complex, d-Calcium Pantothenate,Vitamin D3 Supplement, Niacin, Riboflavin Supplement, Biotin, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid, Thiamine Mononitrate, Sodium Selenite.

Grammy’s Pot Pie is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food nutrient profiles for all life stages

This is one of the more, I feel, conclusive examples of the genre. I don’t even think it’s that horrible, if the labels are even close to accurate. If poor people are stuck eating pet food, I am hoping the ones that can afford the slightly more expensive pet food are getting the advertised nutritional value. But I do hope that we can remember that this is speaking to more than one demographic.

How to take advantage of #Amazonfail

I’ve been watching the story of (probably) accidental censorship on Amazon with interest, and I think there’s a valuable sociological lesson in it. In short: Amazon de-ranked books with GLBT themes as adult over Easter weekend. People were outraged by the apparent moral prescribing censorship, a Bantown prole called Weev claimed he did it with a cross site reference forgery, and then Amazon said it was a cataloging error.

What’s interesting is that all these answers are pretty much equally possible. That’s just weird though- because it suggests that there’s not so much of an entry barrier anymore to the kind of book burning mind controlling corporate/state master propaganda stuff that the ruling class can use to dictate our punch clock existences. Is technology democratizing the tools of fascism? Why not? What’s so different about them? Here comes everybody indeed, whether they like it or not. We’re all going to be shooting mind control rays at each other, obeying Markov chain commands issued by our zombie army computers, living in an anarchist/fascist quasi state of cultural strange attractors, capable of free will only in topics of obscurity and total market failure.

Good times.

Then, just when I thought I’d mentally explored/perverted the scenario to its fullest, I received this ad: #powellswin: a 20% off book sale capitalizing on Powell’s not having (accidently) censored their search results. I like Powell’s, if I wasn’t in debt to my eyeballs (hey….) I’d be tempted to buy something. In the mean time, I’ll just have to let my phished cc do my opinion expressing for me.