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.

I Took It All for Granted

Months ago I moved to the flatlands. You didn’t hear about it here cause nothing I wrote about it was fit to print.

Recently I took a three-week hiatus back to Western Mass. I walked every day on trails I never knew existed, under (and up) hemlocks and pines I’d never seen, leaped streams and sipped from them without terror of gastrointestinal retribution, looked over cliffs I’ll maybe never look over again. I used to live here. There were days, especially in February, during which every year I’ve been here but this one there’s been two and a half inches of ice covering all the paths and bruises waiting at the base of every hill, when I never left my house. I took it all for granted.

I’ve been reading Thoreau again. I’ve long considered this to be something of a mistake, since pretty much everything he said is what I’ve always already been thinking, with the same flaws, only he said it more eloquently and eruditely 180 years ago. I’m too influenced by him already, and I’ve avoided reading him for years. I loved him in high school to the point that teachers assigned me his last name as a diminutive. I hitched the wagon of my identity to his with no consideration whatever for the consequences, and the failure of a theory of Thoreau to function as a guiding principle for my existence deeply informs my own alienatingly close relationship with hypocrisy, my desperate-to-be-disproven agnosticism and my halfassed hedonism of opportunity. His writing is pretty much talking to hear himself talk, shouting eloquently into the aether to justify his own not-entirely-hypocrisy-free lifestyle choices. What could demonstrate this better than his legacy? Walden tries to sell its readers on the joys of a life of contemplative privation and near-total solitude. Now it costs $5 to park at Walden Pond and its shores are encased in chickenwire and netting to prevent the hundred thousand annual followers in his footsteps from trampling it into lifeless desert. By succeeding so well at making us want to emulate him, he’s made it impossible to do so except in the shallowest fashion.

Still, of late I have found myself in need of him, warts and all: a validation, however guilty, of my way of thinking. I could quote him here at length year in, year out and cease needing to write a blog.

I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for, I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

They who have been traveling long on the steppes of Tartary say, “On re-entering cultivated lands, the agitation, perplexity, and turmoil of civilization oppressed and suffocated us; the air seemed to fail us, and we felt every moment as if about to die of asphyxia.”

I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor firefly has shown me the causeway to it.

Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.

Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them, transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half smothered between two musty leaves in a library—aye, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature.

I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walking

I should add that, appropriately, I think, Walking is the very first book I’m reading on my new e-ink reader.

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.

Casey Jones

Long have I been familiar with the Grateful Dead ballad of that name, at whose lyrics I once giggled mischievously and thought I was getting away with something as I listened on my walkman headphones in bed late of a school night:

Come round the bend
You know it’s the end
The fireman screams and
The engine just gleams
Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you better
watch your speed

Years later I heard the traditional version by Mississippi John Hurt, with that one eerie verse that always sticks in my head, about his wife’s cold practicality upon hearing of her husband’s death:

Mrs. Casey when she heard the news
Sitting on her bedside, she was lacing up her shoes
Children, children now hold your breath
You will draw a pension at your Papa’s death

And of course there’s the Johnny Cash version… and Josh Ritter has a line about him in To the Dogs or Whoever, which I figured was a reference to all these other roots folk songs, since that’s sort of his M.O…. So I always assumed Casey Jones to be a purely folkloric figure, like Clementine, Peggy-o, John Henry, Fennario and Ichabod Crane. Specifically, I thought he was ye archetypal train engineer, in blue and white striped overalls with soot all over his face and a corncob pipe in his mouth, whistling dixie as he drove The Little Engine that Could up that mountain.

Not so, as it turns out. In fact, Casey Jones was a real, flesh and blood train conductor in the 1890s, who was so dedicated to his job and so good at it that he ended up as a national hero, with his face on a stamp and everything. He once saved a little girl from getting run over by a train by climbing down out of the cab onto the cowcatcher and snatching her up right off the tracks. He drove the famous “cannonball run” at eighty miles an hour between Chicago and New Orleans. He had a special way of blowing a train whistle so that whenever a train he was driving pulled into a station, you knew it was him at the tiller. And in 1900, on a densely foggy night passing through Memphis, Tennessee, he stayed onboard a doomed locomotive to save its passengers and crew. There was a stationary train idling on the same track as his own, and though he couldn’t prevent the collision, he managed to slow the train enough before impact that he himself was the only casualty.

Hence all these songs about him.

And what do you know, there’s an even older version of the song, by a fellow named Wallace Saunders, who was a friend of the real Casey Jones and worked with him on the railroad, which tells the story of his death.

Trust research to destroy your childhood illusions.