Tuesday, September 10

the command line as a literary environment

I had notes here for a tutorial session on the basics of the command line from a writer's perspective. I've decided to see if I can expand that into something that covers more ground, so it now lives at p1k3.com/cli.

Edit: See instead p1k3.com/userland-book.

sunday, september 8 (early)

i step out into the rain, pipe in hand
and look in a cardinal direction
i wonder what's happening down that way
and suddenly i'm thinking of you
of what it's like in your life
how far away you are

i wonder if anyone we knew back then
is in town for the conference
i wonder why i'm wondering
earlier, standing at the bar at the mountain sun
i looked around half-dreading the moment
when i'd see some familiar face

but it's been a while since that life caught
me unawares, caught up to me
like it was still a real thing
for years i couldn't get away
i kept staying in colorado despite myself
despite all the world and time out there

and while i wasn't looking,
the mountains became part of my horizon
the foothills sunk themselves into my bones
down alongside the wheatfields, the farmyards,
the endless god damned sky, the sound of
an ocean in some suburb of christchurch

the drops spatter down on my jacket, the lights
across the street are all spread out in the
falling water and my sketchy vision
i strike a flame and draw one down,
the paving stones wet under
my feet, the stars nowhere to be seen

do you remember the west coast? the way the
sky looked out there in maybe the darkest night
i'd ever seen, those unknown constellations
the harsh, unbearable sweetness of looseleaf tobacco
(that terrible continental habit of mixing the stuff in
- the first place i ran into it was another hemisphere)

you were so lost out there on the edge of the waves
i didn't know then what i could have said
i still don't, for that matter

and i guess it doesn't signify any more, if it ever did
we must die a hundred times in any given life
at least as often as we actually live:
everything gets lost
even eventually to memory
whatever it once held.

Saturday, September 7

I’ve been reading Grudin’s Time and the Art of Living for a couple of days now. I came to it by way of a quote in the documentation for the GNU date utility, in the section on date formats. I’ve loved that bit for years, but for some reason it struck me that I ought to read the original.

It turns out to be a strange and sometimes wonderful book, if not without its discontents. It’s clearly a kind of conservative work, in the broadest sense of the term. At points it’s sort of right wing, or at least too mired in the American orthodoxies of the late 1970s. At others it’s clearly a form of the self-help thing, which always jars a little. There’s this odd section where the author drowns a spider which makes me, a habitual putter-outside-the-door of spiders, wonder if I’d get along with the guy.

Whatever its flaws, though, it’s a striking piece of writing, as thoughtfully constructed as anything I’ve read in years, and sympathetic in its concerns, which seem for the most part both universal and humane. It’s organized as a series of loosely chained passages, most not much more than extended paragraphs, a handful just sentences. These little essays shuffle around perspectives on a theme, contradict one another at times, and steadily reiterate a handful of metaphors. The structure of the writing itself reinforces and embodies the ideas it develops.

*

I was sitting in the Thai place in town the other day, waiting on a curry and scribbling some kind of nonsense in a notebook. The guy waiting tables asked if I was writing a book.

Not really, I told him. Just sort of a journal or something. But it got me thinking: If I’m not writing a book, I’m not exactly sure what else it is that I’m doing with my time.

For a while now I’ve been living in the strange mode that’s this century’s version of single, loosely grounded, generally irresponsible American middle-adulthood. You get older and the certainties of your early life evaporate, enough of them anyway to convince you of impermanence, of the surety of loss. A lot of people work at building other things to supplant what they lose and move on from. They forge relationships and join communities that might outlast themselves, make babies who stand a fair chance of outliving and outgrowing their parents. I haven’t done these things, for the most part, and feel increasingly unlikely to ever rejoin the stream of normal human experience that they seem to represent. For the tiny network of coworkers and fellow-drinkers I kill time with when I’m not just hiding out, the seeming impossibility of forming new human connections or putting down actual roots in the places we live is a routine subject of conversation. I dwell constantly in the tension between homesickness and the knowledge that returning to my home territory would be a kind of surrender.

And meanwhile the stream of events and the dislocations of history have rendered the now into a future of the kind I used to obsess over inhabiting. Half of the society I experience is contained in a steady trickle of conversation with people I know mostly as textual personae and image fragments on the internet. Computation is omnipresent and the network nearly so. The ecology of information grows ever more ramified as the ecology of nature becomes ever more brutalized, dessicated, poisoned and decayed. The preoccupations of a half century’s fiction and three decades' techno-political paranoia are suddenly the conditions of existence.

This is all pretty weird.

*

Grudin again:

X.5 To young writers, the bulk and variety of already-published work often produces the impression that everything has been done — that there is nothing left for them to do except imitate or qualify the past.

... Writers who suffer from this intimidating illusion would do well to remember the following:

The published writing of a given era, no matter how comprehensive it may seem to be, is generally based on shared assumptions, and therefore suffers from common weaknesses.

The surface of the human condition, vexed and driven by change, incessantly demands new patterns of art.

While the reading public and those who purvey to it may seem to dominate the present, the future is the domain of sincere and persistent individuals.

Friday, September 6

There's a particular fantasy you seem to find all over the place in American business. It's a complicated delusion, but put crudely, it manifests as a belief that numbers are intrinsically meaningful: That measurement - or the appearance of measurement - creates, rather than reflects, meaning. That if a number may be derived and named, it means a Thing, that the number in some sense is the Thing, and that by knowing it, we may exercise Control over conditions we now understand, having affixed nomenclature to them.

This belief is seldom really stated as such. It doesn't operate as a formal school of thought. Rather, it's a sort of implicit factor in the flood of confusion and nonsense that so reliably attends conversations about metrics, reporting tasks, and the instrumentation of processes. If stated directly, in broad daylight, it generally evaporates. There's something slippery about the notion. You might notice it everywhere out of the corner of your eye, if you're paying attention, but you can never quite apprehend its full dimensions. Like a great many such mental constructs, it is not strictly true, but by virtue of being held in mind by so many people, it is very real in its effects.

I suppose all I'm talking about is kind of a degraded, lossy echo of the fundamental intuition shared by scientists and technicians that the world is susceptible to measurement and structured alteration. Which goes a long way towards explaining why technocrats and adherents of "Scientific Management" are so goddamned susceptible to it, and how it has so thoroughly corrupted the American politics of labor, education, drugs, and war.

To that list I suspect we could add the totalizing, comprehensive, and profoundly unaccountable surveillance that the machinery of our state seems to be exercising in concert with the machinery of our economy at large. Not that it's a straight line from some middle manager making a bad decision based on a spreadsheet to the US Government's adoption of the paranoid fantasies of the 1990s as policy, but I think that when the history of our emergent dystopia comes to light, if it ever really does, it is going to be chock full of people who are profoundly deluded about measurement and the possibility of control.

Thursday, September 5

Robert Grudin, preface to Time and the Art of Living:

First, since time refused to sit still for my portrait, I have written instead a kind of moving picture, a series of statements and reflections which readers may follow at their own pace. Rather than leading readers to preordained conclusions, I wish to make them stop and think. Rather than pretending to consistency and connectedness, I wish to set off an autonomous interplay of comparisons and contrasts. The blank spaces between my writings are as important as the writings themselves.