Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Whole Earth Catalog

Under the dome

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In the early seventies, a boy named Jaron Lanier was living with his father in a tent near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Decades later, Lanier would achieve worldwide acclaim as one of the founders of virtual reality—his company was the first to sell VR headsets and gloves—but at the time, he was ten years old and recovering from a succession of domestic tragedies. When he was nine, his mother Lilly had been killed in a horrific car accident; he was hospitalized for nearly a year with a series of infections; and his family’s new home burned down the day after construction was completed. Lanier’s father, Ellery, barely managed to scrape together enough money to buy an acre of undeveloped land in the desert, where they lived in tents for two years. (Ellery Lanier was a fascinating figure in his own right, and I hope one day to take a more detailed look at his career. He was a peripheral member of a circle of science fiction writers that included Lester del Rey and the radio host Long John Nebel, and he wrote nonfiction articles in the fifties for Fantastic and Amazing. As a younger man, he had known Gurdjieff and Aldous Huxley, and he was close friends with William Herbert Sheldon, the controversial psychologist best known for coining the terms “ectomorph,” “mesomorph,” and “endomorph,” as well as for his involvement with the Ivy League nude posture photos. Sheldon, in turn, was a numismatist who mentored Walter H. Breen, the husband of Marion Zimmer Bradley, about whom the less said the better. There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but this post isn’t about that.)

When Lanier was about twelve years old, his father proposed that he design and build a house in which the two of them could live. In his memoir Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier speculates that this was his father’s way of helping him to deal with his recent traumas: “He realized that I needed a meaty obsession if I was ever going to become fully functional again.” At the time, Lanier was fascinated by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, especially The Garden of Earthly Delights, and he was equally intrigued when his father gave him a book titled Plants as Inventors. He decided that they should build a house with elements based on botanical structures, which may have been his father’s plan all along. Lanier remembers:

Ellery said he thought I might enjoy another book, in that case. This turned out to be a roughly designed publication in the form of an extra-thick magazine called Domebook. It was an offshoot of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Buckminster Fuller had been promoting geodesic domes as ideal structures, and they embodied the techie utopian spirit of the times.

At first, Lanier actually thought that a dome would be too mainstream: “I don’t want our house to be like any other house, and other people are building geodesic domes.” His father replied that it would probably be easier to get a construction permit if they included “this countercultural cliché,” and Lanier ultimately granted the point.

The project lasted for seven years. In the classic Fuller fashion, Lanier began with models made of drinking straws, using the tables from the Domebook to calculate the angles. He recalls:

My design strategy was to mix “conventional” geodesic domes with connecting elements that would be profoundly weird and irregular. There was to be one big dome, about fifty feet across, and a medium-size one, to be connected by a strange passage, which would serve as the kitchen, formed out of two tilted, intersecting nine-sided pyramids…The overall form reminded me a little of the Starship Enterprise—which has two engines connected to a main body and a prominent disc jutting out in front—if you filled out the discs and cylinders of that design into spheres…At any rate it was a form that I liked and that Ellery accepted. There were a few passes back and forth with the building permit people, and ultimately Ellery did have to intervene to argue the case, but we got a permit.

Amazingly enough, it all sort of held together. Like many dome builders, Lanier ran into multiple problems on the construction side, in part because of the unreliable advice of the Domebook, which “pretended to offer solutions when it was actually reporting on ongoing experiments.” A decade later, when Lanier met Stewart Brand for the first time, he volunteered the fact that he had grown up in a dome. Brand asked immediately: “Did it leak?” Lanier replied: “Of course it leaked!”

Yet the really remarkable thing was that it worked at all. Fuller’s architectural ideas may have been flawed in practice, but they became popular in the counterculture for many of the same reasons that later led to the founding of the Homebrew Computer Club. Like a kid learning how to code, with the aid of a few simple formulas, diagrams, and rules of thumb, a teenager could build a house that looked like the Enterprise. It was a hackable approach that encouraged experimentation, and the simplicity of the structural principles involved—you could squeeze them into a couple of pages—allowed the information to be freely distributed, much like today’s online blueprints for printable houses. And Lanier adored the result:

The larger dome was big enough that you could almost focus at infinity while staring up at the curve of the baggy silver ceiling…We called it “the dome,” or “Earth Station Lanier.” One would “go dome” instead of going home…There wasn’t a proper bathroom or kitchen. Instead, tubs, sinks, and showers were inserted into the structure according to how the plumbing could be routed though the bizarre shapes I had chosen. A sink was unusually high off the ground; you needed a stepping stool to use it. Conventional choices regarding privacy, sleep schedules, or studying were not really possible. I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.

His father stayed there for another thirty years. Even after Lanier moved away, he never entirely got over it, and he lives today with his family in a house with an attached structure much like the one he left behind in New Mexico. As he concludes: “We live back in the dome, more or less.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Deep Dish reading series at Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago at 7pm, along with Cory Doctorow and an exciting group of speculative fiction writers. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2018 at 8:51 am

The end of flexibility

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A few days ago, I picked up my old paperback copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which collects the major papers of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. I’ve been browsing through this dense little volume since I was in my teens, but I’ve never managed to work through it all from beginning to end, and I turned to it recently out of a vague instinct that it was somehow what I needed. (Among other things, I’m hoping to put together a collection of my short stories, and I’m starting to see that many of Bateson’s ideas are relevant to the themes that I’ve explored as a science fiction writer.) I owe my introduction to his work, as with so many other authors, to Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, who advised in one edition:

[Bateson] wandered thornily in and out of various disciplines—biology, ethnology, linguistics, epistemology, psychotherapy—and left each of them altered with his passage. Steps to an Ecology of Mind chronicles that journey…In recommending the book I’ve learned to suggest that it be read backwards. Read the broad analyses of mind and ecology at the end of the book and then work back to see where the premises come from.

This always seemed reasonable to me, so when I returned to it last week, I flipped immediately to the final paper, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” which was first presented in 1970. I must have read it at some point—I’ve quoted from it several times on this blog before—but as I looked over it again, I found that it suddenly seemed remarkably urgent. As I had suspected, it was exactly what I needed to read right now. And its message is far from reassuring.

Bateson’s central point, which seems hard to deny, revolves around the concept of flexibility, or “uncommitted potentiality for change,” which he identifies as a fundamental quality of any healthy civilization. In order to survive, a society has to be able to evolve in response to changing conditions, to the point of rethinking even its most basic values and assumptions. Bateson proposes that any kind of planning for the future include a budget for flexibility itself, which is what enables the system to change in response to pressures that can’t be anticipated in advance. He uses the analogy of an acrobat who moves his arms between different positions of temporary instability in order to remain on the wire, and he notes that a viable civilization organizes itself in ways that allow it to draw on such reserves of flexibility when needed. (One of his prescriptions, incidentally, serves as a powerful argument for diversity as a positive good in its own right: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaptation’ necessary for unpredictable change.”) The trouble is that a system tends to eat up its own flexibility whenever a single variable becomes inflexible, or “uptight,” compared to the rest:

Because the variables are interlinked, to be uptight in respect to one variable commonly means that other variables cannot be changed without pushing the uptight variable. The loss of flexibility spreads throughout the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the uptight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology.

When I consider these lines now, it’s hard for me not to feel deeply unsettled. Writing in the early seventies, Bateson saw overpopulation as the most dangerous source of stress in the global system, and these days, we’re more likely to speak of global warming, resource depletion, and income inequality. Change a few phrases here and there, however, and the situation seems largely the same: “The pathologies of our time may broadly be said to be the accumulated results of this process—the eating up of flexibility in response to stresses of one sort or another…and the refusal to bear with those byproducts of stress…which are the age-old correctives.” Bateson observes, crucially, that the inflexible variables don’t need to be fundamental in themselves—they just need to resist change long enough to become a habit. Once we find it impossible to imagine life without fossil fuels, for example, we become willing to condone all kinds of other disruptions to keep that one hard-programmed variable in place. A civilization naturally tends to expand into any available pocket of flexibility, blowing through the budget that it should have been holding in reserve. The result is a society structured along lines that are manifestly rigid, irrational, indefensible, and seemingly unchangeable. As Bateson puts it grimly:

Civilizations have risen and fallen. A new technology for the exploitation of nature or a new technique for the exploitation of other men permits the rise of a civilization. But each civilization, as it reaches the limits of what can be exploited in that particular way, must eventually fall. The new invention gives elbow room or flexibility, but the using up of that flexibility is death.

And it’s difficult for me to read this today without thinking of all the aspects of our present predicament—political, environmental, social, and economic. Since Bateson sounded his warning half a century ago, we’ve consumed our entire budget of flexibility, largely in response to a single hard-programmed variable that undermined all the other factors that it was meant to sustain. At its best, the free market can be the best imaginable mechanism for ensuring flexibility, by allocating resources more efficiently than any system of central planning ever could. (As one prominent politician recently said to The Atlantic: “I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try…Really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we’ve got a set of rules that lets everybody who’s got a good, competitive idea get in the game.” It was Elizabeth Warren.) When capital is concentrated beyond reason, however, and solely for its own sake, it becomes a weapon that can be used to freeze other cultural variables into place, no matter how much pain it causes. As the anonymous opinion writer indicated in the New York Times last week, it will tolerate a president who demeans the very idea of democracy itself, as long as it gets “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” because it no longer sees any other alternative. And this is where it gets us. For most of my life, I was ready to defend capitalism as the best system available, as long as its worst excesses were kept in check by measures that Bateson dismissively describes as “legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.” I know now that these norms were far more fragile than I wanted to acknowledge, and it may be too late to recover. Bateson writes: “Either man is too clever, in which case we are doomed, or he was not clever enough to limit his greed to courses which would not destroy the ongoing total system. I prefer the second hypothesis.” And I do, too. But I no longer really believe it.

The Oxford English Addictionary

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As I mentioned yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, I found myself the proud new owner of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I was all set to sit down with my prize, but unfortunately, fate had other plans: the following day, I was on a plane to Hong Kong, and spent the next two weeks traveling there and in China. And while it was a wonderful trip, I have to admit that my thoughts occasionally strayed back home, where my dictionary was patiently waiting. Upon my return, then, I threw down my suitcase and all but tore into the dining room—the only place in the house with a table large enough to comfortably accommodate this kind of work—for some quality time with the OED. (My sister-in-law says that this serves as ample proof that I’m a huge nerd, which will surely come as a surprise to this blog’s regular readers.)

A few words about the Compact OED itself. As many of you probably know, the Compact Edition contains all the material of the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary, with the text photographically reduced so that four pages fit on each regular page of the two-volume version, to be read with an included magnifying glass. The copy I purchased is the second edition, not the third, which means that it lacks the supplements and updates that the dictionary has acquired since 1971. All the same, these updates comprise maybe five percent of the dictionary’s total length, and the older edition may actually be more useful for my purposes: with the four-up format, I can just about read the text even without the magnifying glass, while the latest edition is nine-up, making the type too small to browse conveniently.

And you need to be able to browse in this dictionary, which is a browser’s paradise. Opening it now at random, I’m at a loss as to where to begin: there’s Duumvirate, Dwale, and close to a whole page devoted to variations on Dwarf, with citations ranging from the year 1450 (“that wretchit dorche”) to 1846 (“If a dwarf on the shoulders of a giant can see further than the giant, he is no less a dwarf in comparison to the giant”). Turning to another page, we have Mithridatic, Mitraille (“Small missiles, as fragments of iron, heads of nails, etc. shot in masses from a cannon”), and Mitre (“A headband or fillet worn by ancient Greek women; also, a kind of head-dress common among Asiatics, the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Romans as a mark of effeminacy”). And these are just a few pages chosen randomly out of more than sixteen thousand. The result isn’t just a dictionary, but an entire world, at least the part described in English, and it offers a lifetime’s worth of exploration.

Clearly, I’m addicted: reading this dictionary makes me feel as if I’ll never need to do anything else. Steve Jobs once called the Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form,” and the Compact OED, in this wonderfully browsable edition, gives me something of the same sensation: each page opens up onto new horizons, with one word leading to another, and to unexpected byways of etymology, history, and literature—as big as the Web, but richer and more nourishing. The result seems less like a book than a living being, vibrating with possibility even as it sits reassuringly on the shelf. Whether or not it will enhance my vocabulary remains to be seen, but it’s already had a fertilizing effect on my imagination. Perhaps it will for you as well, or for someone you love. After all, Christmas is coming. What better gift could there be?

Written by nevalalee

December 22, 2011 at 10:16 am

Berkeley on my mind

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I was born in Castro Valley, California, a pleasant but nondescript part of the Bay Area whose greatest attraction to me, at least in my teenage years, was that it was only a forty minute BART ride away from downtown Berkeley. Growing up, I assumed that I would attend college there, and although my education took me a bit farther afield, I still spent many of the weekend and summer afternoons of my adolescence exploring the areas around Telegraph and Shattuck. And though I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for more than a decade now, I’ve been shaped by Berkeley in ways I’m only now beginning to realize, not so much the Berkeley of my own childhood as a version in my imagination, which reached its ideal shape—at least in the story that I like to tell myself—in the ten years or so before I was born.

The landmark that connected my imaginary Berkeley with the one I explored as a teenager was the old UC Theater. This was the theater where Werner Herzog ate his shoe, where an ongoing festival of Hong Kong movies ran every Thursday for years, and where The Rocky Horror Picture Show played at midnight (never seen, alas, by me). It’s also where I had many of my favorite movie memories: I saw the complete Indiana Jones trilogy here, and Judy Garland in A Star is Born, and Lawrence of Arabia, and Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival. I can remember John Waters’s anti-smoking announcement nearly word for word. And the theater’s closing ten years ago remains one of the small, indelible tragedies of my life. If Berkeley can’t sustain a place like this, I asked myself, then how are art house revival theaters supposed to survive anywhere? (The similar struggles of the Brattle in Cambridge have only increased my pessimism.)

So what else resides in the Berkeley of my imagination? There’s Chez Panisse, of course, where Alice Waters helped Herzog cook his shoe (slowly, in garlic and duck fat). There’s the Whole Earth Catalog, which was rooted in Sausalito but whose heart belongs in Berkeley. There’s the epic Plan of St. Gall project of Walter Horn and Ernest Born, which evolved concurrently with Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—the best, most essential book of the last fifty years, and one utterly saturated by its time and place. There’s Robert Anton Wilson, in his house in the hills above the Berkeley campus. And, not incidentally, there are also my parents, who would have been around my own age—or even somewhat younger—at the time I’m talking about.

Like I said, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area in a long time. And the Berkeley I’m describing may never have existed, except in my own mind. But as I look back at my life, which has taken me to some extraordinary places—Harvard, New York, Chicago, and beyond—I feel as if my philosophy, such as it is, was really shaped here. Calling it a “philosophy” might be taking it too far: it’s really nothing more than an interest in whole systems, an inclination toward voluntary simplicity (in life, not in thought), and a nose for the weird, esoteric, and neglected. It’s an instinct that sends me regularly to used bookstores, always trying to recreate my first experience of Moe’s. And whatever it is, it has outlasted all kinds of other, passing infatuations, so that I still carry a bit of Berkeley with me wherever I go.

The power of intentional randomness

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I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.

Gregory Bateson, quoted in The Whole Earth Catalog

Randomness has been used as a creative tool for a long time. (Leonardo Da Vinci recommended that painters generate ideas by splashing paint on a piece of paper and seeing what images were suggested by the random shapes.) It’s a way of forcing the brain to be ingenious: we’re all very good at seeing connections between unrelated objects, or patterns where there really are none. Intentional randomness is the easiest way to put this ability to useful work.

At the earliest stages of a project, randomness can be used to generate ideas for an entire story. The plots for the three novelettes I’ve sold to Analog, for example, all came about in the same way: I leafed through a pile of science magazines (usually Discover, but sometimes Scientific American), chose two or three articles essentially at random, and tried to figure out what the subjects might have in common. “The Last Resort,” for example, arose from the juxtaposition of two unrelated articles, one about the snakes of Narcisse, the other about the tragedy of Lake Nyos. “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to come out next year, originated in a similar way.

For a novel, which can take up a year or more of your time, the underlying idea will probably not be the result of such a mechanical process (although I’ve done this, too). Once you have a plot, though, you can use intentional randomness to enrich your outline. For a while, I would cast a hexagram of the I Ching for every scene I wrote, looking at the result and trying to figure out how it applied to the current chapter. (At least two editions of the I Ching have been published specifically for writers, although the Wilhelm translation is probably still the best.) I haven’t done this in a while, mostly because I found the I Ching to be a little too vague, but it’s certainly worth a try.

More recently, I’ve taken to doing something similar with A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, which is admirably suited for this approach. It’s an anthology of 218 numbered quotations from Shakespeare, selected by Hughes, presented without context or comment. When I’m brainstorming a chapter, I’ll choose a quotation at random—ideally with a random number generator—and then try to see how the passage might apply to the scene at hand. And I’ll almost always come up with an unusual angle or insight into the story that I wouldn’t have stumbled across any other way.

This technique (which sometimes verges on bibliomancy) is especially useful when combined with a mind map. I’ll write a single guiding word on the page, generate a Shakespeare quotation, and write it down beneath the central word. I’ll then noodle for a while with that particular passage before moving on to less structured brainstorming.

If this sounds a little mechanical, well, it is. And I don’t claim that it works for everyone. But over the past few years, it has become an essential part of my writing process.

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