Category Archives: writing

1000 ledes n + 24: A Stone for Breaking Souls

The problem with betrayal is that it takes a long time to recognize if you’re not the sort that does it. Even then, it’s impossible to to take it in all at once, like fitting a strangely shaped and inscrutable stone into a place a little too small for it.

As with so many things, those who spot betrayal at once tend to be practitioners.

The Prosecutor

He is a man who earns a living by sending others to the scaffold. He is the official purveyor to every Place de Grève. Not only that, he is a gentlemen with pretensions to style and literature, a fine speaker, or thinks he is, who if needs be will trot out a line or two of Latin before deciding on death, who tries to create an impression, who is fascinating to his personal sense of self-esteem – O woe! – who, where other people’s lives are at stake, has his models, his appalling examples to live up to, his classics, his Bellart, his Marchangy, like one poet has Racine and another Boileau. During the proceedings he fights on the guillotine’s side; it is his role, his profession. His summing-up is his work of literature, he decks it with metaphors, perfumes it with quotations; it has to be good for the audience, it has to appeal to the ladies. He has his stock of commonplaces that are still brand new to provincials, his ornamental turns of phrase, his affectations, his writerly refinements. He hates the simple word almost as much as the tragic poets of the school of Delille. Have no fear he will call things by their proper name. Bah! For each idea which would disgust you in its naked form, he has disguises complete with epithets and adjectives. He makes Monsieur Sanson presentable. He veils the blade. He blurs the bascule. He wraps the red basket in circumlocutions. You don’t know where you are any more. Everything is rose-tinted and respectable. Can you picture him at night in his study, at leisure, doing his best to work up the harangue that in six weeks’ time will have a scaffold built? Do you see him sweating blood to make the defendant’s head fit into the deadliest article of the criminal code? Do you see him sawing through a poor wretch’s neck with a badly made law? Do you see how he injects two or three poisonous passages into a muddle of tropes and synecdoches so that, with much ado, he can squeeze out, extract the death of a man from it? Is it not true that under the desk as he writes he probably has the executioner crouching at his feet in the shadows, and that he puts down his pen now and then to say to him, like a master to his dog: “Hush! Quiet now! You’ll get your bone!”

What’s more, in his private life this public servant might be a decent man, a good father, a good son, a good husband, a good friend – like it says on all the headstones in Père-Lachaise. Let us hope the day is coming when the law will abolish these doleful duties. At some point the very air of our civilization must wear out the death penalty.

-Victor Hugo, Circa 1929 in France, Last Week in America.


Today I feel old.
I am drinking pu-er and eating an old apple
alone at night

I am remembering bread and butter
across a melamine table in a messy kitchen
The pauses, breaths caught, trapped in the throat like little butterfies
washed down with red wine

I am remembering hot New York slices
and tepid coffee
gulped down to the rhythm of a New York sidewalk
defensive against the terrible night to come

I am remembering water with an alkaline tang
and little oat bars, sticky, crumbling
in my dusty, dry hands
eaten against the journey, against the sun’s wrath

I am remembering a black olive stuck on every finger
eaten with giggles and milk moustaches
kisses delivered as wards against growing up

I am remembering two coffees
two sets of gloves resting on a table
defying the last train of the night
to go home without us

I have eaten my apple to a jagged core
I have drunk all my tea
I am patient
for tomorrow

Thing-a-day 7: Plato told them: A Poem about remix

Plato told
Them that was crucified
the falling stars

time is enormous long river
and I’m standing in it just as you’re standing in it

We all put into the river
and it flows away from us

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
That we all labor together transmitting the same charge and succession,
We few equals indifferent of lands, indifferent of times,
that you and he might touch each other.

certainly told them

I can reach down into that river and take out what I need
to get though this world.
Stories and songs and poems
Important events and important ideas

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
They should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Jesus told them

From pent-up aching rivers,
it flows down to me
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,

(They didn’t believe it,no
sir)it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth


to tell them.

(With deepest affection for EE Cummings, TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Utah Phillips, Yeats and William Blake)

Choka for 2011

The peculiar now
Counting years in weird digits
For seventies kids.

An ipad “revolution”
Lab grown meat, The Wire
Ersatz breasts, sharp far-talkers
Disaster movies
Postmodernist IRL
All the knowledge, free
Pervasively known selves.
This here we dreamed of,
This is what we made of it
Let us say plainly
Yes, We started this fire

So, 2010
it was a sarcastic year,
a salty green year,
better than I’d hoped for back when
I was sure I’d be
dead well before Thirty-Five.

And for 2011?
penultimate year
of the fifth mayan world
The end drawing near
our last full measure of year
as far as we know

I wanted to write a poem
Maybe to impress you,
Maybe to impress me,
Maybe for the Mayans,
Maybe to impress the idea of 2011 which still seems impossible really because a little girl in the 70s is still waiting for 2000, the future! You never know for sure.

Except for sure to get far out of me,
to get to that other place I have visited on occasion where the othermind-ness of poems takes over
But now I broke my choka, and my words spilling around soaking the wrong side of broken choka staining the table, damn

I am bad at this
Organizing all these years
coming ever faster now
and ever more peculiar

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.

HOPE: the lost article

(Due to a few problems and confusions with timing submission and editing, this piece about the Next HOPE never ran at Gizmodo. It’s presented on my blog instead because… you know, why not? I almost never name my own articles, that’s my editor’s job. But I have names for them in my head, and this one was called:)

Scenes from a Hacker Conference

The Hotel Pennsylvania was packed the weekend of the The Next HOPE conference, full of New York’s summer tourists as well as hackers. But it’s wasn’t hard to tell the hackers apart from the civilians. They were the ones in all black– goth with funnier t-shirts and no make-up.

The look may have risen nearly to the level of self parody, but the enthusiasm was genuine. The vacationers were far outmatched for pure excitement. People were grinningly happy to be here. “This year was… the HOPE that people thought would never happen, but we’re still here despite the economic problems and other issues,” says founder and organizer Emmanuel Goldstein. “This was The Next HOPE. It was about renewal.”

HOPE stands for Hackers On Planet Earth. It was created by the community around 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, mainly by 2600’s co-founder, Emmanuel Goldstein, less well known as Eric Corley. It’s been going since 1994, every 3-2 years. The HOPE conferences are much more hacker conferences than computer security conferences, embracing an ethic and aesthetic that goes beyond security. “There are other conferences that relate on certain themes (to HOPE), but most don’t hit the politics/anarchy/hacking all at once. It’s actually a pretty rare combination,” says Aestetix, one of the conference organizers.

Goldstein has made the HOPE conferences by far the most European of the American hacker gatherings– a political event, with a worldview that exceeds the technical. American hackers have often taken the mantel of bad guy hooligans much more than their European counterparts, for whom defiance and transgression are seen as more righteous and politically active. European hackers have often swung socialist, the Americans, libertarian. Goldstein tries to be as inclusive as possible. “The idea is to get people to come out of it saying ‘that’s really something different and I had my mind opened,'” says Goldstein.

The talks ranged wildly, from coding to resist botnets to sex and food and a talk about how we perceive color. They are political, technical, scientific, social, and often funny. But one of the things people notice about the HOPE conferences is that they always bring the drama, and The Next Hope was no exception. This year featured a WikiLeaks keynote that brought out federal agents looking to question Julian Assange, and the public appearance of Adrian Lamo, with whom WikiLeaks has been in an embarrassing public pissing match over the case of alleged leaker Bradley Manning.

“As annoying as drama can be to watch unfold, it’s also really exciting. I think general news stories follow the same line, drama sells,” said Aestetix, and the organizers weren’t shy about playing up the drama.

Goldstein took the podium in front of a packed room for the WikiLeaks keynote. Goldstein is a middle aged man with a soft, welcoming face. He looks like a man perpetually ready for a backyard BBQ. A two minute hate of this Emmanuel Goldstein would feel like chewing out a favorite uncle. He looked over the crowd with a grin. “Everyone having fun?” The audience cheered. “Alright. There’s a lot of feds here. I don’t understand it. There’s all this interest in the conference this year for some reason. So hi, how are you doing?” He laughed, and went on to introduce Jake Appelbaum in the place of Julian Assange.

(Photo credit to Jake Appelbaum. Yes, the same Jake Appelbaum.)

The next day he brought Lamo to the stage to defend himself, admonishing the hackers to listen to the same man he’d castigated the day before. Lamo did a remarkable job, and the tense room broke partly for him. Even his opponents conceded he’d displayed the kind of courage hackers value over almost anything else. As Lamo walked out of the hotel, one of the attendees called him a bastard. He then grinned and laughed, and added “You’ve got balls, though.”

Beyond the talks, drama, and clothing choices there’s the touches that are unique to HOPE. What passed for an expo floor at the Next HOPE really wasn’t. The most capitalist of the booths were the little businesses like, selling fancy padlocks alongside lockpicking kits, and Adafruit industries, which sells kits and supplies for electronics hacking. There was a hackerspace village with tables laid out with soldering irons for whoever needs them. Off to the side 8 bit DJs blasted unexpectedly good music, music that found its form within the constraint. Beyond that a lockpicking area, and a Segway track. Right in the middle of the floor boxes of imported Club Mate were stacked nearly to the ceiling in an unlikely cardboard tower. Like so much of HOPE, 2600, and the hacker scene in general, it had the feel of an impractical solution undertaken just to see if it could be done.

You can’t really get the feel of the event without talking about the Club Mate, a vile German caffeine drink based on the South American yerba maté plant. The drink became popular with American hackers after being imported at the Last Hope by 2600. It’s everywhere, and people refer to it constantly. “Have you had your Club Mate?” Speakers admonish their audiences. It’s thrust into my hands by a conference organizer. I thrust it into someone else’s hand. It may be hacker vitamins, but it tastes like sucking on a pill. I’d rather have a meth habit. Even the brewer, Loscher, acknowledges that it’s an acquired taste. The 2600 store ships it around the country, “supplying various hacker spaces with pallets of the stuff” according to the website.

I wandered over to see the lockpicking area gatherimg a crowd. There was competition going on, and a team finishing up. This was the the Defiant Lockpick Challenge (Named for the 1958 movie the Defiant Ones). Two people form a team, bringing their personal lockpicks. They’re given a box and five minutes, and handcuffed together awkwardly. The timer starts, and they pick the box open. Inside are eight padlocks, four pairs, for the contestants. They can pick the cuffs and escape from them at any time, but that’s the last lock they’re allowed to pick.

The next team was two men in black t-shirts, one with a black fedora to match. Time was called, and they worked frantically. Fedora was seated, his team mate hunched over the table across from him. The box was easy, but the locks inside vary from easy to much harder, and it wasn’t apparent which were the easy locks.

They were mostly quiet except for the sounds of the picks, their badges knocking against the table, and the occasional yell and crash of a lock thrown against the table when they got one. It’s surprising how enthralling lockpicking can be to watch. It was tense, and the concentration seemed like a palatable force emanating from their table. The crowd grew as they went along, complete with photographers circling around the contestants. Four locks, five locks, they’ve gone through them faster than anyone before them, the event announcer told us. But they were getting to the hard ones. The hunched over man picked his way out of the handcuffs first, and watches while his loosened companion settles into a final pick. Fedora was still seated, left hand completely covers a padlock, with an index finger gently pushing a torsion wrench at the base of the keyhole while he raked across pins with his right cuffed hand. His partner inserted a shim into the handcuff still on him, and waited. The time was nearly up. People in the crowd, along with an announcer, began counting down. Some held their breath. The man in the fedora popped the last padlock, and in nearly the same motion, his partner popped the cuff off his arm.

Everyone burst into relieved applause while the partners threw their arms to the ceiling in triumphant Vees. They’d won by one lock. Generally lockpicking for fun is called locksports largely to avoid trouble with the law, but here it lived up to the moniker.

Later, when the organizers are closing the conference Goldstein fields screams from the audience to make the conference annual. It’s been a success. Goldstein points out to me later that despite holding a conference with several thousand attendees who pride themselves on being transgressive, and refusing to set up explicit rules, there wasn’t a single incident over the weekend. “Our crowd has always been fairly mature. There’s immature people of course, but they’re drowned out by the mature community around them,” he says. “If you treat people like adults then they’ll act like adults”

Goldstein’s been there from the beginning, and he sees the community getting more complex. It’s more inclusive of women, politics, and dissent than it once was. “It’s a strange community to gauge,” he says, “Is a hacker anyone that says they’re a hacker? If we included everyone that called themselves hackers, I’d say we’ve grown up. We’re talking abut a lot of things we weren’t talking about 10-15 years ago. We have a wider net around what defines us.”

50 years of cyborgs: I have not the words.


(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.

1000 ledes n + 22: Prologue

For the want of a better word from a time before words, before names, before almost any of the story of life, XDFJVTH loved GHSTDF. They were close family, and their Last Common Ancestor was a mere 2 generations earlier. Their LCA, LOGOS, was struck by a rush of chaotic, if this word can mean much before the invention of intentionality, confused electrons in the middle of miosis. The perfection of its genetic code thus disrupted, something new and strange was built into both the resultant cells. A curse that made no sense for survival.

Both GHSTDF and XDFJVTH are humanity’s ancestors. They were the first family. We only get our genes from GHSTDF though, who never really loved XDFJVTH. Not even in the vague and mechanical way they had in those day. They shared resources, signaled to each other and the rest of the colony when they found food, where they found danger, but GHSTDF was cooperative, did it out of a biomechanical prisoner’s dilemma, always for creating the most long term personal gain. GHSTDF was never going to bring anything new into the world, any new way of being. XDFJVTH was different, it had a magic locked into it that would change everything, a beautiful mutation. XDFJVTH followed GHSTDF’s signals, put resources in its way. It wanted to be near GHSTDF, to be one with GHSTDF.

One day when the phage attacked the colony, XDFJVTH found itself infected. It desperately signaled DANGER DANGER to GHSTDF, but GHSTDF didn’t move away fast enough. XDFJVTH found it had a magical ability, first ever in the world, jumping through its DNA. Sensing GHSTDF there, threatened by its own soon to be phage ridden cytoskeleton, it began to tear itself apart, ripping its own struts apart and watching its organelles bleb out into the resources, painful, terrible, but there was GHSTDF, safe. GHSTDF carried XDFJVTH’s gift, but latently transposonded off, safe for it, safe from the love that makes you kill yourself.

GHSTDF divided many times, and most of its child died defending it, infected with XDFJVTH’s poisonous love as well as phages. The phages were not doing well out of the deal. The population dropped as little crystals collapsed on the sides of GHSTDF’s children, and no more phages emerged. GHSTDF’s death cry echoed for billions of years, the first selfish eukaryote, surrounded by the selflessly transposed and loving children trying to be part of one greater thing for it, with it.