Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

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A poem is a peculiar instance of language’s uses, and goes well beyond the man writing—finally to the anonymity of any song. In this sense it may be that a poet works toward a final obliteration of himself, making that all the song—at last free of his own time and place…Again and again I find myself saved, in words—helped, allowed, returned to possibility and hope. In the dilemma of some literal context a way is found in the words which may speak of it.

Robert Creeley, “Statement for Paterson Society”

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

The hacker in the bathroom

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Readers with long memories might recall that I once wrote a post titled “The hotel bathroom puzzle,” which appeared on this blog about two and a half years ago. It was inspired by a case study that I had found in the book The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski, who took it in turn from Ralph Caplan’s By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons. Since I’ve quoted Petroski’s version at length here before, here’s how Caplan originally told it:

An ingenious example of the product-situation cycle could once be found in a Quebec waterfront hotel called L’Hotel Louis XIV, lamentably destroyed by fire in the 1980s. At the Louis XIV, the term “private bath” meant what it means in many European hotels: the bath is yours but not yours alone, for it is also the private bath of the guest on the other side of the bathroom. This creates a problem. If the bathroom has no inside locks, you have no privacy. But if the doors can be locked from the inside, one forgetful guest can lock the other out indefinitely and almost surely will.

The hotel’s solution, Caplan reveals, was to tie a leather thong to the knob of each door. A guest who wanted to use the bathroom simply hooked the two ends together, stretching them across the room and holding both doors shut. As Caplan notes: “There was no way to get back into your own room without it at the same time unlocking the door for the other guest. It was memorable as the total integration of object and circumstance.”

This is the kind of story I love, so I threw together a post based on Petroski’s version, put it on the blog, and moved on. I couldn’t have spent more than an hour on it, but it got a favorable response from readers that morning, which is all it was ever supposed to do. Earlier this week, however, something unusual happened. I noticed an uptick in views for that page, which occasionally happens when somebody links to one of my old posts online. (This occurs a few times a year with my writeup on Blinn’s Law, which is another throwaway post that took on a life of its own.) It apparently began on Reddit, where a commenter linked to it in a thread for an unrelated story about sharing a bathroom with a sibling. Somebody else evidently posted the same link to Hacker News, the aggregator site associated with the startup incubator Y Combinator. From there, it took off. When I went to bed that night, it was the top post on the front page, and although it soon dropped a few notches, it had a surprising amount of staying power. It was widely shared on Twitter and Facebook, mostly from users who repost anything that gets a lot of upvotes, and it continued to snowball from there. As I write these words, it has over fifty thousand views, which is good enough to make it the second most popular post that I’ve ever published here, topped only by a piece about George R.R. Martin that will probably remain the most widely read thing I’ll ever write, thanks to a similar confluence of factors on social media. Whenever this happens, it fills me with both excitement and anxiety—you just never know where it might lead—but in both cases, I emerged mostly unscathed. There were a few nitpicky comments, but for the most part, people seem to have genuinely liked it.

So why did it catch on? Unlike Caplan and Petroski, who treat the anecdote as a straightforward case study, I framed it as a puzzle, which evidently appeals to the sort of crowd that you find hanging out on Hacker News. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but a result of the way in which I tend to write these posts, and it had a lot to do with the illustration. In The Evolution of Useful Things, Petroski reproduces a line drawing from Caplan’s book, which only shows the bathroom with the solution in place. Since I like to include two pictures with every post, it occurred to me to include a before and after shot. I quickly edited the picture in Seashore to remove the leather strap, and you can still see the traces of my hasty retouching. But the result was a post that looked sort of like one of those visual brainteasers that most of us read growing up, and I think that contributed to its appeal. (Looking back at it now, I see that the original picture in By Design was drawn expressly for the book by the legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, who is apparently good friends with Caplan. Amusingly, the illustration is the one aspect of the post that generated any criticism, with one commenter complaining: “It’s a poor drawing. They look like doors that open inward. Doors that open outward would be need to be set more deeply into the door frame.”) As a result, it came across as an exercise for the reader, and the ensuing discussion was less about the actual solution at the Hotel Louis XIV and more about various approaches to the problem itself, which I don’t think would have happened if I had written it up as Caplan and Petroski did. This was purely by accident, but it’s interesting, at least to me.

And the thread that it inspired is worth reading. Among other things, it led to a number of useful critiques that had never occurred to me. (One commenter noted that such an arrangement would be hard to open from the outside in case of an emergency, although I think that this problem is more apparent than real. I don’t know what the exact setup was at the hotel, but the term “leather thong” suggests something roughly the thickness of a shoelace, which would present enough resistance to a casual tug to ensure short-term privacy, but would break at a sustained pull. Another reader asked how guests in one room could be prevented from entering the other, and the answer appears in a line from Petroski that I neglected to quote: “Each bathroom door did have a lock on the guest room side, of course, for otherwise a stranger could come in through the common bathroom, but there were no locks at all on the insides of the bathroom doors.”) Other replies were less useful, with some proposing solutions along the lines of motion sensors—“Tech is cool”—or raising persnickety objections: “What if the high humidity of the bathroom causes the leather strap to break at an inopportune time? What happens if the strap gets misplaced or stolen? This is not a good idea.” As the top comment put it:

I’m reminded of a discussion we had here a few weeks ago, where somebody noted that humanity wouldn’t be able to invent, for example, a machine to automatically rack pins at a bowling alley today. The 2018 solution to that problem would automatically involve computer vision, AI and robotics…You can see it happening in some of the comments here.

But there was also a lot of ingenuity and civilized discussion, which pleased me. This was mostly due to the power of the original example, but I think the way that I inadvertently structured the post—which encouraged speculation—had something to do with it, too. It may not quite qualify as “the total integration of object and circumstance.” But it wasn’t bad, either.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2018 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

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In a world of technique motions tend to become methods. But the undependable life that appears on occasion as poetry would rather die, or so it seems, than follow this tendency, and when a poet himself follows it farther than the source of his gift warrants, his gains of technical facility are likely to render him the helpless master of mere confection.

W.S. Merwin, “On Open Form”

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

Putin and I

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About ten years ago, I wrote a conspiracy thriller set in the New York art world. The decision was largely a practical one—I had written but been unable to sell a long science fiction novel, and I switched to suspense mostly because I knew that it was in my wheelhouse. When I started, I didn’t have a plot in mind, and my initial approach was simply to read as widely as I could and assemble pieces that I thought might be useful. One was Marcel Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Another was the unexplained double suicide of the artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. And a third was a curious incident that took place two years earlier at Sotheby’s, in which an unknown bidder—with a Russian accent—paid a record amount for a portrait by Picasso, despite “the relentless and unsophisticated manner in which he waved his paddle.” That was how Russia entered the story, and while I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew that the Russia angle would let me get away with practically anything, because the truth was invariably stranger than fiction, and it was impossible to come up with any plot point that was more farfetched than actual events. As the backdrop for a conspiracy novel, it was perfect. In The Icon Thief, these elements were used mostly for atmosphere, but I did a deep dive into the intricacies of the secret services in the sequels, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire, complete with a rivalry between the civilian and military branches of Russian intelligence that in retrospect may have been one level of complexity too many. (My best source was The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, which I recommend highly to anyone looking for a historical perspective on recent developments. I’ve just started watching the first season of The Americans with my wife, and it’s clear that the show’s writing staff was reading it closely, too.)

At the time, my decision to focus on Russia was a matter of narrative convenience, and not because of any contemporary relevance that I thought it might have. (As the creator of The Americans has said: “People ask us how we were so prescient. We weren’t prescient. We were the opposite of prescient.”) In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he claimed to outline the chain of reasoning behind his poem “The Raven.” Here’s how he allegedly arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Critics often read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, but it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like a picture of a bullet being shot through an apple. It slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that normally occurs within seconds. Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages—the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is a way of saving space. You pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and for something else.

In the case of my novels, “Russia” itself is a word that calls up an entire world of intrigue, but there’s an even better one. Over two years ago, in a discussion of Eternal Empire, I wrote: “I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is ‘Putin.’ Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire.” It seemed to me that Putin’s name was the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller, allowing me to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. In utilizing a real political figure in a novel, I was following the example of Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle and gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later books. Ideally, this sets up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with obvious figures like Putin, working its way down through less familiar politicians or incidents, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where history leaves off and invention begins, especially as the novel shows its age. (I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence is based on fact, which is an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it used to enhance its own credibility.) In theory, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

As a result of my hunch about the subject’s potential, I spent five years of my life thinking about Putin and Russia, which was more than I ever intended. By the end, I was feeling burned out, so I closed Eternal Empire on a note of unwarranted optimism. The events of the novel were timed to coincide with a series of protests that took place toward the end of 2011, of which Ellen Barry wrote in the New York Times:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president twelve years ago…The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced…He is by far the country’s most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.

Even then, I knew that this was less of a turning point than it seemed, but I wanted my novel—which centers on the figure of a Russian dissident modeled on Mikhail Khodorkovsky—to arrive at some kind of closure. But I never imagined how timid these novels would seem one day, even if they were superficially prescient in other ways. (An important subplot in The Icon Thief describes the poisoning of a political enemy overseas using a nerve agent, which back then was safely in the realm of fiction.) Years ago, I wrote on this blog: “Nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.” It turns out that I was right. I’m proud of these three novels, but I haven’t gone back to read them in a long time. And I frankly don’t know if I ever can again.

Quote of the Day

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Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real.

Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Illuminatus

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Over the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Robert Anton Wilson, the late author whom I’d be comfortable describing as one of my intellectual heroes. There was a time when I seriously considered writing a book about his life, and I’m not sure that I won’t try it eventually. Wilson may not have had the range or the depth of the greatest science fiction writers, but at his best, he was at least their equal as a craftsman, infinitely funnier, and probably more sane. He was one of the few people to ever make it seem cool to be an agonistic, and his skepticism, which was genuine, makes much of what goes by that name these days seem like its own form of closemindedness. Wilson’s stated goal, which shouldn’t diminish his considerable merits as a pure entertainer, was “to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.” He achieved this, notably, not by preaching to the converted or by humorlessly attacking those with whom he disagreed, but by constructing elegant intellectual games that he presented with such a straight face that you weren’t sure whether or not he was kidding. The most famous is deservedly the 23 enigma, in which he followed William S. Burroughs in “finding” that number in everything from biblical chronology to the life of the gangster Dutch Schultz. (It’s been a while since I was conscious of it operating in my own life, but I notice now that Astounding is scheduled to be released on October 23, which is the anniversary of the day on which Schultz was shot.)

But what I like the most about Wilson, who was supremely confident and stylish on the page, is that he knew that he didn’t have all the answers. Oddly enough, this isn’t always true within science fiction, which deals by definition in uncertainty. The four subjects of Astounding could be infuriatingly sure of themselves, and unlike Campbell or Heinlein, when Wilson said he only wanted to raise questions, you could believe him. His attitude didn’t reflect a lack of intelligence, rigor, or strong opinions, but the exact opposite. The 23 enigma itself is a virtuoso piece of performance art on both the potential and the limits of cleverness, while in The Illuminatus Trilogy, Wilson and Robert Shea say of the related Law of Five:

All phenomena are directly or indirectly related to the number five, and this relationship can always be demonstrated, given enough ingenuity on the part of the demonstrator…That’s the very model of what a true scientific law must always be: a statement about how the human mind relates to the cosmos.

Wilson’s ingenuity shines through every page that he ever wrote, and he had such an abundance of it that he became intensely skeptical of where it led. As a result, he never used his position of authority to present his ideas as authoritative—which is a temptation that few other science fiction writers have managed to resist.

And when you look at Wilson’s actual beliefs, what you find can be a little surprising. He opens the revised edition of Cosmic Trigger, which is probably his single best book, what seems like a definitive statement: “Many people still think I ‘believe’ some of the metaphors and models employed here. I therefore want to make it even clearer than ever before that I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING.” For once, however, he’s being disingenuous. Wilson may not believe anything, but he’s come to some provisional conclusions about what matters, and you find them throughout his work. For instance, he writes of the editorial stance of Playboy magazine, where he used to run the letters column: “This position is straight old-fashioned mind-your-own-business John Stuart Mill libertarianism, and (since that is my philosophy as well as Hefner’s) I enjoyed the work immensely.” A few pages later, he writes of his introduction to the underground writer Kerry Thornley:

We were both opposed to every form of violence or coercion against individuals, whether practiced by governments or by people who claimed to be revolutionaries…At times we discussed free-floating libertarian communes in international waters, which in my case gave birth to the anarchist submarine fantasy in Illuminatus, and, later, to enthusiastic support of the Space Migration plans of [Timothy] Leary and Prof. Gerard O’Neill.

Wilson describes Cosmic Trigger itself as an account of “a process of deliberately induced brain change,” and much of the book is devoted to a sympathetic discussion of Leary’s “SMI²LE” program: “SM (Space Migration) + I² (Intelligence Increase) + LE (Life Extension).”

In other words, Wilson was a libertarian transhumanist with an interest in space travel, seasteading, and life extension, including cryonics. You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like Peter Thiel—and I can’t stand Peter Thiel. And the difference isn’t just that the latter is a billionaire preparing his own survival plan, although that’s certainly part of it. I’m not a libertarian, but I have nothing against the other elements in that program, as long as they’re combined with an awareness of other urgent problems and of how most people want to live their lives. Yet it really comes down again to the question of uncertainty. Our most prominent contemporary futurists can come across as curiously resistant to questioning, doubt, or criticism—which Wilson recognized as central to such thinking. When you’re talking about immortality, space colonization, and brain engineering, it seems reasonable to start by acknowledging how little we know or can foresee, as well as the strong possibility that we might be totally wrong. It might also help to show a sense of humor. And I frankly don’t associate any of these qualities with most of the public figures driving our current conversation about the future, who hate and resent being questioned. (It’s impossible to imagine Wilson ever lashing out with the toxic insecurity that we’ve seen in Elon Musk, who looks smaller and more Trumpian by the day.) It’s also significant that neither Wilson nor Leary were in a position to benefit financially from the changes that they advocated. We desperately need to think about the future, but we can’t afford to be humorless about it, and in these troubled times, I miss the man who was able to write on his blog five days before his death: “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.”

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2018 at 9:12 am

Quote of the Day

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The ideal, for me, is to obtain right away what will work—and without retouches. If they are necessary, it falls short of the mark. The immediate is chance. At the same time it is definitive. What I want is the definitive by chance.

Jean-Luc Godard, to Andrew Sarris in Interviews with Film Directors

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

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