Week 7, a series of interlinking devices, debates, and visions

The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning

The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning, Camille Pissarro, 1897

Last night, I was a guest at the annual fundraising dinner for the Berkeley Public Library. It was a lovely event—a whole huge room full of readers.

For the past few years, I have felt my political opinions really getting whipped around. As new calamities have unfolded, I’ve often felt like one of those four-year-olds on a soccer field, just sort of chasing the ball around in a giant scrum. As a remedy—at least partial—I’ve been on the hunt for lodestars: super-stable points that can inform new opinions (and, eventually, votes) in a principled, non-four-year-olds-playing-soccer-like way.

I’ve found a few of these lodestars, and one I’ll share is this: The modern public library is the best thing people ever made. What’s good for public libraries is good for everybody and everything.

This turns out to be really quite clarifying! It’s not that every policy question is somehow “about” public libraries. But, given a proposal, you can almost always ask yourself: “How would this affect public libraries, directly or indirectly?” and come up with something useful. (The backup question is, “What would a public librarian think about this?” which also works surprisingly well.)

I could write more about libraries, and probably will. Suffice it to say, the public library made me. It’s a debt beyond repayment. The best I can do is keep reading, and keep writing, and every now and then, go to a fundraising dinner.

This week,

  • I'm reorganizing my workspace at the Murray Street Media Lab. Sometime during the fall, it phase-shifted from "Doc Brown's garage" to "Great Pacific garbage patch" and it is just not working anymore. So, rather than nibble at the edges, I'm rebooting the space with a whole new approach. Maybe I'll share a picture when I'm done.
  • Kathryn and I have a dinner reservation at Zuni, the classic San Francisco restaurant... where they now use Fat Gold! Bay Area people will know that's a bit of a milestone. I haven't eaten at Zuni in many years and I'm eager to check it out.
  • I'm making final edits to my small contributions to the soon-to-be-released video game Neo Cab.

Early Saturday morning, I walked through the rain to the cafe on the corner and started this book:

The Perversity of Things

The title is The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientification. I knew Gernsback as the founder of the first science-fiction magazine—the genre’s Hugo Awards are named for him—but I had NO IDEA AT ALL about his life, which was this amazing fusion of commerce and imagination.

The book’s opening paragraph is irresistible. Just read this; let the scene seep in:

The Perversity of Things, introduction

(Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the quality of that prose. It’s clear and authoritative but also dramatic and fun.)

The introduction arrives at this statement of purpose:

The Perversity of Things, a nice bit

I mean!!

The historical overview is only a thin sheaf of pages at the front of the book; the rest is given over to reproductions of Gernsback’s publications, which are wacky and wonderful, full of illustrations, morphing instantly and unabashedly from circuit diagrams to science fiction:

An easy transition

And, check it out: ✨the entire book is online✨, beautifully presented on the University of Minnesota’s Manifold platform.

When it comes to these academic web publishing platforms, I am always a great fan of the vision but often a reluctant reader of the text; the platforms tend towards heaviness and clunkiness. Manifold is neither, and maybe more importantly, it’s a great match for this book, which is naturally random-access. After reading the introduction and getting grounded in Gernsback’s world, you are best served by just tapping/clicking/flailing at random to discover something weird and unforeseen.

This is a really wonderful project—book and website together. I’m dizzy with delight knowing that all of this happened in our world, was published, was read. I also feel like Gernsback’s milieu has things to tell us about technology, tinkering, and fiction today. I’ll be thinking about this for a while.

The neo-classical composer and performer Nils Frahm is a grumpy old man in a young man’s body, and it suits him well. I love his whole deal here:

You’ve gone in a completely opposite direction, and taken over a historic studio.

For two big reasons. No one wants the technology and the knowledge of historic studios to disappear, so I try to finance a web of engineers and technicians, who are dependent on my advertisement fees and concert fees, which I spend on the art of recording audio. I am very proud about that, to be honest, because I’m preserving knowledge. I think it’s useful knowledge. We’ve already lost a shitload of knowledge about analog audio, which is a shame. I'm trying to support younger people—around my age—to go deep down into building cutting machines, tape machines, and mixing desks. I could buy an SSL or a Neve [console], but I want people around me to learn how a Neumann works, and how a master bus works, with the zero ohm Neumann summing cards, and so on. That topology is really important. The studio is basically an excuse to do that.

Emphasis mine. He’s set himself up as an archivist of craft—preserving not only artifacts but skills, which can’t be printed out and put on a shelf, but have to go from one human mind to another, one set of hands to another.

A recording of Frahm’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2015 remains my candidate for “YouTube Video with the Most Ecstatic Comments”:

People really like this music!

It is, in fact, a tremendous performance. If you wish to immediately improve your Sunday, set it playing.

Warren Ellis, in his latest newsletter, wrote:

Something else for my to-do list is to retune my internet. I’ve been taking five minutes here and there, but I need to give it a couple of hours soon. Here are the rules. Facebook is for misery, so don’t use it, at all. Twitter is for news, so just read it. Instagram is for joy, for as long as Instagram lasts, so filter it well. RSS is for information, good writing, music and the Isles of Blogging.

His cadence there made me think somehow of the rhyme from Susan Cooper’s great The Dark Is Rising books:

Iron for the birthday; bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning; stone out of song;
Fire in the candle ring; water from the thaw;
Six signs the circle and the grail gone before.

Or even Tolkien!

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die...

So now I can’t get it out of my head that we need a new prophetic rhyme for a new era, something like:

Twitter for the news-hounds, always out of breath
RSS for the old ones, who follow unto death
Facebook for the barrow-wights, etc., etc.

The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator

"The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator," Science and Invention, vol. 13, no. 3, July 1925

☄️ R

February 2019, Berkeley

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

Have a question? Spot a typo? Your story didn’t arrive? Email

hony soyt qui mal pence