The Coder

My reading of Benjamin Parzybok‘s excellent story from LCRW 21, “The Coder”, is live today at the Small Beer Press podcast. I worked hard and I’m quite proud of the result–every one of these readings I do, the audio quality and (I flatter myself) the delivery improve–so please go listen if you have time.

I love this story. I’ve been advocating for it to the Small Beer interns for years. It has this wry bizarro/surrealist tone which fits perfectly with the LCRW/Small Beer ethic, writers like Ray Vukcevich, Alan DeNiro and (yes) Kelly Link who are SBP’s bread and butter. It has interesting metafictional/Borgesian undertones, dealing with the influence of archetypal structure on reality; the cycle of life and death still applies, even in the sterile cubicle warrens of a software company. How to describe “The Coder” without giving too much away? To put it like Bob the annoying geek co-worker might: is it like Office Space meets The Matrix? Is it Funes the Memorious plus The Metamorphosis? Maybe. What I can say is that to me, it’s one of those stories that feels like it’s always existed notionally out in the ether, at least since cubicle warrens and coding began, waiting for somebody clever and talented enough to step up and be the medium through which the universe inscribes its processes on human cognition. Like one of those Michelangelo slaves.

Lots of people have tried to write this story, me included. We try, because they tell us “write what you know”, and what we know best–tiny, pathetic tragedy–is mindless corporate monotony. We fail because who cares?

So maybe what impresses me most is its capacity to turn the world’s most boringest occupation, computer programmer, into something mind-blowingly sublime. Sure, there are instances in film and fiction wherein programmers are made to appear awesome–The Matrix, Tron–but it’s not by writing code. Ready Player One and one million works of high anime follow the same path, glossing past the code in favor of what it produces, the virtual. “The Coder” does just the opposite. Nor am I counting all those scenes in all those thrillers where somebody hacks the CIA: I don’t call that sublime, I call it wankery. Okay, there’s that scene in The Social Network where ye sympathetic-ified zeitgeist-personifying supergenius Zuckerberg assembles a software social-dysfunction-demonstrating device to the sound of post-industrial Trent Reznor. That comes close. Maybe some of the Lone Gunmen bits in The X-Files count. Many have tried–I venture to call it a holy grail of latter-day geekdom–but nobody has pulled it off like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and to a degree sympathize with the sentiment behind those CODE IS POETRY bumper-stickers. A complex thing well-designed to do its purpose is beautiful, and when it comes to software, it’s only the programmers who get to appreciate that beauty. As opposed to, say, suspension bridge engineering. This story gives non-coders a window on that mindset, a way to understand how code can be poetry.

Let it suffice to say that “The Coder” includes two instances, one a pseudo-JavaScript, the other a pseudo-PHP script, wherein code actually is poetry and fits perfectly into the structure and function of the story, revealing the hidden (terrifying?) truth that underneath, all poetry, all narrative, is code.

Now go listen.

Solstice in the City

It used to be easy. I could just step out into the garden with my whiskey and corncob pipe of a steamy midsummer night, maybe fiddle about a bit with the maize god statuettes guarding the tomatoes, look up across the hazy cornfields at King Philip’s Rock and pour out a bit of libation to the turning wheel.

Instead, I spent the moments surrounding midnight wandering the side streets east of a walled-off Boston Common, looking up past the evocative rootlike patterns of plinths and facades at the starless sky, smelling the smells of stir-fry and subway exhalations, marveling at the thirty kinds of not-English I heard from passersby.

Here’s this new blog Justin led me to, Next Nature, that deals with the unpredictable “natural” phenomena which arise from human culture. Fascinating stuff. I love this:

Our technological environment
becomes so complex
we start to relate to it
as a nature of its own


Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA

Happy Solstice, wherever you are.

Circular Time

In which I digress (much) further about the not-coming apocalypse.

This is long. Sorry. I tried to break it into two parts, but it just wasn’t happening. Thanks in advance for your kind attention.

The Popol Vuh is the Mayan creation myth. The version available to us today was written in secret between the years 1554 and 1558 by three anonymous philosopher-priests of the Maya religion, during the early years of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, when Catholic missionaries under Friar Diego de Landa were systematically destroying all evidence they could find of indigenous religion and culture. In order to preserve it, the authors of the Popol Vuh spirited it away somewhere in the Guatemalan city of Chichicastenango (underneath a Christian altar, perhaps, as was a favorite tactic of the Maya, preserving the old beneath the new) until 1701, when it was discovered, copied, and translated from the original Roman alphabet transliteration of Quiché into Spanish by Francisco Ximenes, another Catholic friar. His copy is the only one that survives today.

All of which is to say that the contents of the Popol Vuh as we know them have been deeply, irrevocably compromised by the influence of a conquering culture. Some evidence mitigating against this has come to light fairly recently: a stucco frieze dating from before 100 BC has been uncovered in the ruined Mayan city of Mirador, which depicts in detail a scene from the Twin Gods cycle of the Popol Vuh myth. That’s some impressive continuity, considering what an incredibly diverse range culture and belief can be seen across mesoamerica—even from one Mayan sacred site to the next. Still, there is a huge gulf of uncertainty in the 1600 years between those two points, and in the 450 years between then and the winter solstice, 2012. And it’s exactly that kind of gulf from which new-agey doomsday conspiracy theories are born.

Continue reading »

Swinging Through the Trees

The thousand-furrowed, spiraling clouds of an angry 2012 rant have been gathering for some time on the horizons of my awareness… but today is not the day. Too much else going on. Head full of other things.

So instead, as a stopgap, a teaser, an eagle-feathered atlatl dart flung at the hurricane, here’s this, from Dennis Tedlock’s introduction to the Popol Vuh:

In theory, if we who presently claim to be human were to forget our efforts to find the traces of divine movements in our own actions, our fate should be something like that of the wooden people in the Popol Vuh. For them, the forgotten force of divinity reasserted itself by inhabiting their own tools and utensils, which rose up against them and drove them from their homes. Today they are swinging through the trees.

On Ouroboros, the Wheel, Constancy, Flux

So here we are. We know what we know. There are certain givens: time, matter, energy. We come out of them, we plod and stutter through them, we go back to them. There are also unknowns, and of these—their quantity, their breadth and scope—we haven’t got a clue. But we progress. We live. We add to the knowns. From within them, our discoveries seem vast. Yet our carvings away at the unknown, which ought to correspond in moment and consequence, after contemplation, after living, emerge as imperceptible. Death, God, Fate, Consciousness. We can be overwhelmed by these unknowns, we can proceed in spite of them, we can ignore them to our peril. We can fall back on what we know. Time, matter, energy. But more likely, more often, we fall back on what we are. Consciousness. Ephemeral, yes. Indeterminate, yes. But there. Present. A focal point of known and unknown, a pinhead upon which angels and mortals dance even though it can take them nowhere but where they are.

What is all this, exactly? I suppose it’s an argument against fear, and for striving. I look across the table, across the gulf from screen to screen, and there I find identities in the same situation, existing at the same summit of incomprehensible, familiar, unknowable, and inevitable. And sometimes I’m shocked at the far more tangible gulfs in ideology and apprehension that result from what is essentially the same. And other times I’m shocked any of us manage to communicate at all. But we’re all going to the same place: death. And we all came out of the same set of resources: matter, energy, life, the past. And we’re all trying to occupy the heads of our own pins with recourse only to those same resources. Trying to maintain equilibrium and to progress at the same time.

Sometimes I wish I could pull off my head, pull of my worldview, my set of both rational and irrational connections to life, matter, energy, the past and the unknowable, and plunk it on top of somebody else for a little while. On the other hand, the prospect of somebody, anybody, doing the same thing to me—no matter who it is, Ghandi or Dr. King or Einstein or Tesla or Marx or Erin or my father—frankly, terrifies me. I try to overcome that. I strive. Just like I take what I can get when it comes to the head-popping-off, head-hopping, etc. And I consider myself lucky, when it occurs to me to do so. And other times I hate myself, because it isn’t luck at all, it’s how you use what you’re given.

And that’s what striving is. We do what we can.

Forgive me. I realize I’ve been stating the obvious here, and just because I’m formulating it in these vague, mystical terms doesn’t make it any more meaningful. There are parts of this argument I’ve been having with myself that I can’t formulate except in my head, and occasionally, when the moment’s right, in person.

Ask me about it sometime.