Category Archives: c4c39c3e-3745-47ed-96db-8409d0a4c8fb

Waiting for the Windows 7 Release Candidate

A colleague of mine from Magenic, IM tag Estragon, just IM’d with news that the Windows 7 RC had been released for MSDN subscribers.  I did a quick google search for the official announcement which took me to this Microsoft Partners site https://partner.microsoft.com/US/40084742:

linkpage

I was naturally curious and followed the Download link, which redirects to the MSDN subscription site.  Unfortunately, there was nothing about the RC on the downloads page, which I found very odd.  I kept refreshing the page, hoping something would change, but this is what I continued to see:

downloads

My colleague then IM’d me that he didn’t think he could go on like this.  We’d been waiting for the RC for so long and this was just a remarkable let down.  We began to question our very faith in Windows 7 at this point.  Sure, it looked great in beta, but did we in fact know anything about it?  Was it even worth waiting for anymore.  The rest of the IM chat went something like this:

Estragon says:
I can’t go on like this.
Vladimir says:
That’s what you think.
Estragon says:
If we parted? That might be better for us.
Vladimir says:
We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow.
Vladimir says:
Unless the release candidate comes.
Estragon says:
And if it comes?
Vladimir says:
We’ll be saved.
Estragon says:
Well? Shall we go?
Vladimir says:
Pull on your trousers.
Estragon says:
What?
Vladimir says:
Pull on your trousers.
Estragon says:
You want me to pull off my trousers?
Vladimir says:
Pull _on_ your trousers.
Estragon says:
True.
Vladimir says:
Well? Shall we go?
Estragon says:
Yes, let’s go.

But we didn’t go anywhere.  IM chats are sort of silly that way.  Maybe the RC will come tomorrow.

Geek Literacy

antispock

I’d previously posted about some questions I’d like to ask the Presidential candidates.  The thing is, the questions I’m most interested in aren’t particularly useful to anyone but another geek.  Slashdot has certainly made an effort to pose questions of interest to the sci-fi reading, Scientific American subscribing, computer literate types, but they tend to fall short of being truly interesting — instead they simply cover mundane subjects like the teaching of evolution, global warming and Mars colonization.  Yawn.

Here are the truly geeky questions that should never be answered by anyone seeking higher office and probably should never be asked, but which I find inherently fascinating:

1. If you knew that a deadly AI like Skynet were to emerge in the year 2013 and attempt to enslave mankind, what steps would you take, as President of the United States, to prevent this?

2. If you were the leader of the last 50,000 or so humans who have survived a Cylon attack on the home colonies, would you suspend habeas corpus in order to preserve the fleet?  What advice would you give to President Laura Roslin in a situation like that?

3. As President, would you consider opening up an X Files type section of the FBI?  And would you agree that the show jumped the shark in the last three seasons?

4. Before shoring up Social Security or trying to keep the Medicare program solvent, don’t you think something should be done to prepare the American people for the coming Singularity?

5. Would your counterpart in the Mirror Universe wear a goatee, and what sort of president would he be?

6. As President of the United States, you will have access to the secret files of the FBI, the CIA, and several black agencies none of us no anything about.  What question would you want to have answered first?  — Who shot JFK?  What really happened at Roswell?  What was kept inside of Area 51? Something else?

7.  As President of the United States, you would find out almost immediately if the U.S. government has been in contact with alien civilizations or, say, has a Star Gate that can transport people to alien worlds.  Will you commit, now, to telling us if any of it is true as soon as you find out?

8.  What Jedi power would you most like to have, and what steps would you take to avoid going over to the darkside?

9.  Should the United States have a plan in place in case of mass Zombification?

10. Do you support working towards the colonization of Mars?

Software Development and the Occult

mrwizard

Sergey Barskiy, a colleague at Magenic, likes to say that there is no magic in software development.  There’s only hard work.

Every few months, another software management process is promoted, a new tool is developed, or a new snowclone, "X-driven development", is coined to make software developers more productive, and in general they all promote themselves as the magic that will radically change the way we deliver software, and in general they don’t really pan out.  Instead we just end up with different schools of software development.  Physiology, metoposcopy, chiromancy, theurgia, goetia, necromancy, cabalie, geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, prymancy and suffumigations — does one method really provide a better way to deliver software than another?  Or should we simply pick the techniques that work best for us and stick with them?  What is ultimately disappointing, and this is at the heart of Sergey’s rule, is that once one immerses oneself in any of these techniques, one discovers, like a teenage goth working through Alaister Crowley’s Magick, Liber ABA, that things don’t ever go quite quite according to plan.

But does this mean there is no magic?  Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place. 

Last Friday, on June 6th, Microsoft released the beta 2 of Silverlight 2.  Almost immediately, several prominent bloggers published entries not only about the release, but also full code samples demonstrating how to use the new release.  Scott Guthrie, Jeff Wilcox, Kirupa Chinnathambi, Brad Abrams and Ashish Shetty all had immediate posts (Mr. Shetty’s was actually a day early), but this is to be expected as they are all Microsoft employees closely associated with Silverlight.

More impressively, non-Microsoft employees like Shawn Wildermuth, Peter McGrattan, Walt Ritscher and several others had immediate code to publish around this release.  No amount of hard work can make that possible. 

What is the occult, after all, but something hidden?  Even for people who once believed in such things, metoposcopy, geomancy and chiromancy were simply techniques for dealing with the hidden world not commonly understood.  Along with alchemy and astrology, cryptography was once considered one of the areas of expertise of a renaissance magus.  Both Johannes Trithemius and Giambattista Della Porta wrote about it.  What made cryptography go so well with other fields such as necromancy and hydromancy is that its secrets were possessed only by the few, and knowledge of it helped preserve one’s monopoly on secret knowledge.

Software development is full of secrets.  Developers call what they do "coding", for no obvious reason other than that it is generally incomprehensible to anyone but a fellow initiate of a particular coding language.  The code, in turn, is a set of instructions which must be translated into another code, assembly, the mystical language of all our virtual worlds, which is actually incomprehensible to nearly everyone.

Dame Francis Yates called this kind of magic "practical" magic.  It is simply a way of getting things done.  Whether one instructs a demon to sour one’s neighbor’s milk, or uses chemicals to acidify it, the effect is basically the same — all that differs is the particular technique one employs to accomplish one’s goal.  One is clearly going to be more effective than the other, but the difference between the occult and the mundane surely does not turn on mere efficacy. 

The other kind of magic is a "spiritual" magic, which is a different sort of secret.  In a chapter entitled "113" in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco quotes from Ja?far al-?adiq, the sixth Imam:

"Our cause is a secret within a secret, a secret that only another secret can explain; it is a secret about a secret that is veiled by a secret."

Spiritual magic, in this case, is the way one gains influence by either having special access to secrets, or by appearing to have such access.  One begins to be an initiate into its mysteries simply by recognizing that it exists.  In his history of Secret Societies, Arkon Daraul describes an actual case of a young man becoming a Sufi:

"His first contact with a Sufi was when he was working as a part-time assistant in a restaurant.  Here he noticed a man among the customers who always seemed ‘on top of every situation.  His methods of discussion with the people who came into the place were so controlled, and his perception, especially of atmosphere, so profound, that I plucked up enough courage to ask him how one did it.’"

The initiate is then tested for suitability, and finally takes the oaths required of him to learn more of the Sufi way.  Ahmad Yasawi, a thirteenth century Sufi, laid down rules for initiates, of which the seventh is possibly the most important.

"Utter silence of secrets is my oath; and I will show respect for those who are set up over me, without quibble.  I am the friend of the friends of the Order and the Murshid who exemplifies it; the enemy of the enemies of the same."

Today this would perhaps be called an NDA.  The rituals change over time, but the patterns are always recognizable.

The patterns of success are imprinted upon the human mind and its shape appears again and again throughout history.  Secret societies exist in every field, whether we recognize them as such or not.  I do not claim that Microsoft has such a structure, nor do I deny it.  I only suggest that if there is any magic in software development, this is where you will find it.

Adjectives for the Good and the Great

ernst

A well placed adjective can thoroughly change the meaning of a word.  Some adjectives are so powerful that the the combined phrase becomes more significant than the noun the adjective modifies, leaving the unmodified noun seeming naked and weak without it.  For instance, a cop is an important member of society, but a rogue cop is a thing of legend.  An identity is good to maintain, but a secret identity is essential to maintain.  A thief is a lowly member of society, but an identity thief is lower still.  A secret identity thief is the lowest of all.

Then there are adjectives so overwhelming that they obliterate the word they modify, leaving none of the original meaning behind.  A fallen angel, after all, is a devil, and a fair-weather friend is no friend at all.

I used to work for adjectives.  You might have seen me on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign with words to that effect.  I began my career as a junior developer, then worked up to being just a developer — which, although unmodified, was significant enough that it underscored the fact that "junior" was just a kind of slur.  After developer came advanced developer, then expert developer, and finally senior developer.  There are currently lots of senior developers around and very few junior developers, unlike the way it was back in the day.  They all tend to wonder what comes after the adjective "senior".  One can become an architect, of course, but the change of theme, and the fact that it is unmodified, merely serves to impress upon everyone that architects don’t actually do any coding.  As a sort of gesture to make up for this damning through faint praise, an architect will occasionally receive a hyphenated title of developer-architect, which to my ear just makes things worse.  After senior developer, one can also become a manager of course, much the same way a Jedi padwan can become a Sith lord, but this is a path of last resort.

Our Sith overlords could meliorate the situation by simply coming up with a new adjective, of course.  I always thought awesome developer had a nice ring to it.  Recent politics, besides revealing how our democracy really works, also inspired me with a different notion.  The term super delegate left me wondering if super wouldn’t make a good modifier for the great developer.  With repetition, we may be able to gentrify that somewhat wild modifier, super, and re-appropriate it from the comic connotations that have tended to diminish it.  What better public identity is there for an über geek than super developer?

This morning, however, I was surprised to discover that there is something even more powerful in Democratic electoral politics than the super delegate.  It is the undecided super delegate.  Amazing, isn’t it, that not doing something can make a person more powerful than actually doing something?  Rather than waste their potency by declaring for one candidate or the other, these undecided are able to curry special favor by simply not deciding, not declaring, not having an opinion one way or the other.

There is a tradition in the West that the undecided are in some sense the most contemptible beings, scorned by all sides.  Before the gates of hell, Dante and Virgil encounter the third host of angels who neither sided with God nor with Satan, as well as those "who lived without or praise or blame," and perpetually lament their state.  Virgil states harshly:

These of death
No hope may entertain: and their blind life
So meanly passes, that all other lots
They envy.  Fame of them the world hath none,
Nor suffers; mercy and justice scorn them both.
Speak not of them, but look, and pass them by.

In the late Platonic school of Athens — alternatively known as the old school of Skepticism, or Pyrrhonic Skepticism –, on the other hand, this suspension of affirmation was considered a moral virtue, and was called the epoche (a term later appropriated by Husserl for Phenomenology).  They found this suspension of belief so difficult, however, that they used ten argumentative tropes which they learned by heart to remind themselves that nothing should ever be asserted, lest they commit themselves to falsehood.  The true philosopher, for the Pyrrhonic skeptic, is not one who speaks the truth, but rather one who does not speak falsehoods.  Well into the modern era, one finds an echo of the Pyrrhonic tropes in Kant’s four antinomies.

Whether undecided super delegates are Pyrrhonists or Kantians I cannot say.  I choose to withhold judgment on the matter since, after all, the real intent of this post is simply to congratulate two of my colleagues in the Magenic Atlanta office on their promotions.  Through hard work and natural talent, Todd LeLoup and Douglas Marsh are now both Senior Consultants.  With such adjectives we give public praise to the good and the great among us.

The Secret Society of Liberal Artists

secretsocieties

The IT industry is dominated by those with CS degrees.  Much criticism has been leveled at the CS degree of late, mostly on the grounds that it doesn’t provide the skills (or even teach the languages) that an aspiring software developer will need once she gets out into the real world.  Brian at Enfranchised Mind has a good post over on his blog about this.  He raises what he considers to be three misconceptions concerning IT and the CS degree:

  • Computer science and programming are separate things, and that it’s possible to know one without knowing the other,
  • That it is possible, at least in theory, to teach students everything (or most everything) they need to know in “the real world”, in a reasonable amount of time (four years), and
  • That the point and purpose of a CS education is to give you those “real world” skills.

He argues, correctly I believe, that the goal of the Computer Science Degree is not to provide students with a specific set of skills to do a specific job, but rather the sort of skills they will need to perform any IT job.  This has both practical and humanistic implications.  From a practical point of view, being trained to do a specific job in IT is inherently short sighted, since technology changes so quickly that the person trained to do the most needed tasks today — say MS BizTalk, or MS SharePoint, or SOA architecture — may find himself obsolete within five years. 

Job training is also wrong from the humanistic perspective, however.  To be trained for a job is basically to be trained to be a cog in a wheel.  This doesn’t work in professions that require the amount of energy, thought, and imagination required to successfully complete software projects.  Instead, some thought has to be put into developing the whole person to participate in the complex activity of software development, and this means equipping that person with the skills needed to not only understand the things that have to be done immediately, but also to understand the principles behind what they do, and the goals they are trying to achieve.  This in turn involves developing the whole individual in a way which, on the surface, appears to be useless.  CS majors learn obsolete languages and the principles behind building tools that have already been developed for them out in the real world.  Why learn to build a web server when there are so many already out there?

What is forgotten in these arguments against CS is that the goal of the degree is not to teach CS majors how to do any particular IT task, but rather how to think about IT.  In learning obsolete languages, they learn to think about software in a pure way that does not involve immediate applications or utilitarian motives.  They learn to appreciate computer science for its own sake.  In the long run, this useless knowledge can also become useful knowledge.  When code start breaking, when servers don’t work as advertised, it is the CS major who is able to step in and unravel the problems because they understand what the server or the code is supposed to do.  They understand the principles.  For a great article on the purpose of useless knowledge, I highly recommend Stanley Fish’s post from earlier this year.

While the IT industry is dominated by CS majors, it is not exclusive to CS majors.  Over the years accountants, actuaries, mathematicians, physicists, entomologists and ornithologists have also found their way into the profession, and have enriched it with their particular perspectives.  The rigor of their training has turned out to provide much needed additional skills to the mix.  The mathematician knows his way around algorithms much better than the typical CS major.  The ornithologist is trained to organize and particularize in ways those with CS degrees are not.  Accountants and actuaries know the secret paths of financial transactions that your common CS major cannot usually follow.  These specialists have basically learned on the job, and their prior careers have provided them with the techniques of methodical thinking as well as the strong grounding in mathematics necessary to make this transition possible.

But the IT industry is not exclusive to CS majors and emigres from finance and the sciences.  Within the hallowed cubicles of IT you will also find secret adepts of the Trivium, followers of disciplines which since the beginning of the 20th century have been generally acknowledged as being trivial.  These are the practitioners of truly useless knowledge: English majors, philosophy majors, psychology majors, comparative literature and art history majors.  You may work in an IT shop infiltrated by these people.  You may even have a French literature major working in the cubicle across from yours and not even know it.  Your DBA could be a history major.  The etiquette of the IT workplace prevents you from finding this sort of thing out.  You have no way of knowing.

But they know.  Liberal artists seek each other out, and have secret phrases they use to find each other that seem like gobbledygook to the rest of us.  Has a colleague ever asked, in passing, if you read Auden?  You probably gave a confused look, and the interlocutor quickly changed the subject.  You’ve probably even forgotten about the incident, not understanding the implications of the phrase. 

What was really going on, though, was this: you were being approached by a Liberal Artist who, for whatever reason, suspected that you might also be a Liberal Artist.  Perhaps you dressed with a bit of extra flair that day, or took some care in matching your belt with your shoes, or applied a subtle and inoffensive amount of cologne.  There are lots of secret signs in the Liberal Artist community.  Whatever it was, you were then approached in a "contact" scenario to discover if you were in fact an initiate or merely someone who accidentally deviated from the norm of the IT dress code (i.e. golf shirt, khaki pants with frayed cuffs, tech gear worn on utility belt).  Your bewildered look, in turn, indicated one of two things: 1) I have no idea what you are talking about or 2) there are other people listening in — too dangerous to make contact now — come back later.

Other phrases that might be used by a liberal artist during a "contact" situation include:

    • I read an article in Archaeology Today that might be relevant to this.
    • I hear the Pinot Gris is especially tasty this year.
    • That is quite a moral quandary.  I wonder what Kant would say.
    • This debate over objects vs services reminds me of the Medieval debate between Realists and Nominalists.
    • Did you see that New Yorker cartoon?  You know the one I’m talking about.
    • That is not the proper usage for "begs the question."  What you meant to say is it "invites the question."
    • Are you as incensed as I am by Stanley Fish’s latest blog post?

 

This of course does not exhaust the list of occult phrases that may be used by the liberal artist during an attempted contact, but it should give you a good indication of the types of things you might look for in order to find signs of liberal artist infiltration of your organization.  Another way to identify liberal artists without breaking etiquette and outright asking them — thus revealing that you are onto their little game, and possibly placing yourself in a precarious position — is to ask what schools they attended.   Even better, surreptitiously check their resumes to gather this information.  Sometimes the matter may be ambiguous.  On the other hand, if you find that they attended schools with names like Bard, Brown or Bowdoin, then you can be fairly certain that you are face-to-face with a liberal artist.  Here is a list of other liberal arts schools you can use in your background check.

Why, you may ask, are liberal artists so secretive about their background, to the point that they require secret signals to identify one another?  An innocent explanation would be that they simply suffer from a bit of CS envy, and desire to blend in.  But this wouldn’t be the whole story.  Liberal artists help each other out.  By identifying each other in these esoteric ways, they not only form a cohesive unit within an organization, but put themselves in positions to help one another out.  Like a fifth column inside the corporate body, they concentrate power into the hands of like-minded individuals, and use this as leverage in order further climb the corporate ladder.

Consider how many of your managers might be liberal artists.  Liberal artists are often able to emphasize their communication skills based on their backgrounds, which tends to put them on a management track.  Once in management, they are in turn more likely to favor others with a similar background for promotions.  It is a vicious circle that leads, in many companies, to a situation in which you may find that while the IT staff is predominantly made up of CS majors, the class of employees tasked with managing the CS majors are almost exclusively humanities majors.  And how does this happen?  Through simple and apparently innocuous questions like "Do you read Auden?"

Don’t believe me?  Then consider that Carly Fiorini, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard responsible for the merger with Compaq, is a medieval history and philosophy major.  Michael Eisner, one of the best paid CEO’s ever, studied English and theater.  Sue Kronick, one of the 25 highest paid executives in the U.S. according to Fortune Magazine, did Asian studies in college.  So the next time you are tempted to think of the Secret Society of Liberal Artists as a mere social organization, consider carefully who holds the reins of power in your company.  The Secret Society of Liberal Artists: a harmless networking tool?  Perhaps.  A dangerous anti-democratic cult out to gather power by any means?  Most definitely.

How do I know all this?  Because, my friends, I must confess that I am not only a software programmer.  I am also a recovering liberal artist.  And I am here to warn you: do not take the liberal arts lightly.

The Decemberists In Atlanta

Decemberists


I once heard the Yiddish storyteller and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer describe his first experience with a cafeteria in New York City.  He was initially frustrated by the lack of help he received from the servers at the strange restaurant.  As he waited politely for a table, he saw scores upon scores of waiters and waitresses carrying trays of food around but they all ignored him when he requested their assistance.  ‘What a devilish restaurant,’ he thought, ‘with more staff than customers, and yet the service is still horrible.’


Something similar may have gone through Colin Meloy’s mind when he and his band, The Decemberists, performed at Chastain Park this past Friday.  Whereas at many venues the audience is there to listen to the performers, at Chastain the band is very much there to entertain the audience.  People typically arrive half-an-hour after the show has started.  They bring in their own food and spirits; they dine and converse throughout the show.  The fifty or so tables set up in the area immediately before the stage reinforce this casual atmosphere, since some of the audience can even turn their backs to the band in order to better carry out their convivial discussions.


My hope is that The Decemberists were not offended by this or took it for a lack of appreciation.  At a certain point Meloy even walked through the diners in the pit and sampled some brie from one of the tables.  He seemed to be in a good mood, and the only reason to think otherwise is the brevity of the main set, which lasted only a little over 70 minutes.  This may have been due, however, to the fact that there was no opening act and the show had to be coordinated with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which performed backup on many of the songs.


The Decemberists are an Indie band (a term often used to describe something non-mainstream — I’m not sure what else it is meant to encapsulate since they are currently on a major label.  They are also said to be a folk band, though I am not sure in what way, other than that in some songs an acoustic guitar predominates (for instance in Red Right Ankle, which I’m listening to, now) and that most songs involve esoteric narratives sung from the point of view of street urchins, nineteenth century soldiers and dissolute aristocrats.



My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist
In pre-war Paris
Smuggling bombs for the underground.
And she met my father
At a fete in Aix-en-Provence.
He was disguised as a Russian cadet
in the employ of the Axis.



My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist



I don’t follow rock reviews well enough to describe the music, itself, which is beautifully melodic and filled with complex and occasionally obscure instrumentation.  I think coming up with terms to describe rock sub-genres must be a bit like inventing terms to describe wines.  To my palate, The Decemberists taste like summer fruit, with overtones of oak casks and tobacco, as well as a hint of wet dog.  What strikes me most about the songs is the beauty of the lyrics, which typically are imbued with a nineteenth century romanticism and filled with a similarly stylized diction, as well as surprising inversions and exotic, near-hysterical rhyming schemes.



Medicating in the sun
pinched doses of laudanum
longing for the old fecundity of my homeland
Curses to this mirage!
A bottle of ancient Shiraz
a smattering of distant applause
is ringing in my poor ears



On the old left bank
my baby in a charabanc
riding up the width and length
of the Champs Elysees



If only summer rain would fall
on the houses and the boulevard
and the side walk bagatelles it’s like a dream
with the roar of cars
and the lulling of the cafe bars
the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine
Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again


The Legionnaire’s Lament


The lyrics are also overflowing with words one needs to look up.  What is a charabanc, or a bagatelle, or an infanta, palanquin, gingham, corncrake or taffeta?  The esoteric character of the lyrics, far from making the songs remote, make them more accessible since all one has to do to enjoy them is to agree to play along.  The experience is a bit like a graduate seminar in which one at first feels unqualified to participate — after a while, one realizes that no one is really qualified to participate and that all that is necessary to play is to learn a few technical terms and be willing to follow the conversation wherever it goes.  As an added bonus, a conversation with The Decemberists takes you across a field of Dickensian fancies, spy novels, turn of the century adventure tales, and on occasion, in such songs as Los Angeles, I’m Yours and Sixteen Military Wives, even the contemporary world.


Finally, unlike many popular bands where memorable refrains are the most salient aspect of the songs, for me the most memorable aspect of The Decemberists are the wonderful images their songs evoke.  For instance, from Los Angeles:



There is a city by the sea
A gentle company
I don’t suppose you want to
And as it tells its sorry tale
In harrowing detail
Its hollowness will haunt you
Its streets and boulevards
Orphans and oligarchs it hears
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore,
Los Angeles, I’m yours.


… from California One:



And the road a-winding goes
From golden gate to roaring cliff-side
And the light is softly low as our hearts Become sweetly untied
Beneath the sun of California one.

Take a long drown with me of California Wine…



… and from Summersong:


My girl, Lenin in curls
Lips parting like a flag unfurled
She’s grand, the bend of her hand
Digging deep into the sweep of the sand


Despite a forecast of summer rains, the weather was fair throughout the evening at Chastain, and as the sun set we watched bats flitting overhead.  The band opened with The Crane Wife 1 & 2 and followed this with Los Angeles, I’m Yours.  At the same time, my wife and I opened with some Barefoot California Chardonnay (perhaps the same wine The Decemberists sing about in California One?), accompanied by salami, butter and asiago sandwiches on homemade bread.  Next we had a not-so-ancient shiraz paired with a greek salad made with rotini, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken cubes, feta and a balsamic vinaigrette.  I think The Decemberists were playing Perfect Crime #2 and The Bagman’s Gambit while we were eating our salad, but I can’t be sure.  The band continued with The Infanta and We Both Go Down Together, while Mrs. Z and I continued with a double bock from Munich (we had both recently read Tim Powers’s The Drawing of the Dark in which this brew plays a central role in the survival of Western Civilization)The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had made the earlier pieces interesting, but with the two following arrangements for Odalisque and The Tain, the audience had the opportunity to hear something transcendent.  Following I Was Meant For The Stage, the ASO left the stage, as did The Decemberists.



The audience was a bit surprised at this.  The sun had only just gone down.  Perhaps we had done or said something wrong?  Or perhaps the orchestra simply had to get home early.  The crowd, previously demure and appearing uninterested, finally woke up and cheered the band to the degree it deserved for such a fine, if somewhat brief, show.  The Decemberists generously came out again and performed what I think is one of their best songs, Sixteen Military Wives.



Fifteen celebrity mimes
Leaving their fifteen sordid wretched checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time
Using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds?



Eighteen academy chairs
Out of which only seven really even care
Doling out a garment to five
Celebrity mimes, they’re humbly taken by surprise
Cheer them on to their rivals



Cause America can; and America can’t say no
And America does, if America says it’s so,
It’s so …


A clearer expression of American exceptionalism I have never heard.  The night ended with a furious and participatory rendition of The Mariner’s Revenge Song in which we had an opportunity to hear the sweetness of Jenny Conlee’s singing as she stepped out from behind the organ to strap on an accordion.  


The Decemberists departed the stage for the second time that evening and as the audience began chanting, once again, for more, the stage hands were abruptly sent out to send a clear message that the evening was over.  It reminded me of something my grandfather used to say when guests had overstayed their welcome.  “Come on, honey.  We ought to go to bed.  These people obviously want to go home.”


You can hear some of The Decemberists at their myspace site here. In addition, they did a recording for Austin City Limits a few days ago, which should air fairly soon.

Nostalgia

The Clementinum Baroque Library, Prague

I have been looking through my library shelves, picking out books I once read for signs of what I once saw in them.  I no longer remember.  All I find are rare page corners delicately turned over.  I have never been able to pick up the habit of actually touching ink to my books, which has always struck me as a sort of desecration of the text.  Nevertheless, I do find chocolate and nicotine stains on the edges, occassionally, and from books I have not openned since college, I am often rewarded with the foul whiff of stale cigarettes smoked long ago, a scent no doubt mirrored internally as a black smear on my lungs.  As I peruse these pages with their foreshortenned corners, a sign from my past self to my future self that here there be something of note, I wonder what I used to know that I no longer know, and what I thought I knew but now I know better.  This is one such passage.

 

In ancient times the painters were supplied with their themes by the poets, though at liberty to indulge in as much decorative play as was decent within the limits of a given theme; later, the failure of the poets to keep their position at the head of affairs forced painters to paint whatever their patrons commissioned, or whatever came to hand, and finally to experiment in pure decoration; now affectations of madness in poets are condoned by false analogy with pictorial experiments in unrepresentational form and colour.  So Sacheverell Sitwell wrote in Vogue (August, 1945):

Once again we are leading Europe in the Arts …

He lists the fashionable painters and sculptors and adds:

The accompanying works of the poets are not hard to find … Dylan Thomas, whose texture is as abstract as that of any modern painter … There is even no necessity for him to explain his imagery, for it is only intended to be half understood.

It is not as though the so-called surrealists, impressionists, expressionists and neo-romantics were concealing a grand secret by pretended folly, in the style of Gwion; they are concealing their unhappy lack of a secret.

For there are no poetic secrets now, except of course the sort which the common people are debarred by their lack of poetic perception from understanding, and by their anti-poetic education (unless perhaps in wild Wales) from respecting.  Such secrets, even the Work of the Chariot, may be safely revealed in any crowded restaurant or cafe without fear of the avenging lightning-stroke: the noise of the orchestra, the clatter of plates and the buzz of a hundred unrelated conversations will effectively drown the words — and, in any case, nobody will be listening.

— Robert Graves, The White Goddess

Today, the Work of the Chariot has its own flash-enabled web page, as well as a Wikipedia entry.  There was even an X-Files episode in which it served as a narrative device. 

Secret Societies and the Internet


While driving with my family to visit an old friend the other day I caught a bit of Harry Schearer’s  wrap-up of the year 2006 on Weekend Edition.  During the interview Schearer was asked what happened with the 2006 Democratic election victory, and Schearer said yeah, what happened?  What must be going through the minds of all the people who believed that the elections were stolen in 2000 and again in 2004, the people who can point out the series of miniscule irregularities that cumulatively disenfranchised the American people of their right to vote those two previous times?  Did evil take a holiday in 2006?


Conspiracy theories are, of course, the opiate of the masses, but what happens when they are real?  And what must be happening when they disappear?  The most truly worthy conspiracies do not only control the mechanisms of power, but also the perception of power, and in doing so undermine the very Enlightenment notion that truth will set us free, since the conspirators control our perception of the truth. They are everything we like to accuse post-modernists and deconstructionists of being with one difference — they are effective.  Any conspiracy worthy of being treated as a conspiracy, then, cannot simply disappear anymore than it can make itself appear.  Everything we know about conspiracies are, a priori, false, managed, and inauthentic.  An elaborate cover story.


In the very awareness that there is falsity in the world, however, one also becomes aware that there is something being hidden from us, and behind it, eventually, truth. Or as Descartes said in The Meditations :


…hence it follows, not only that what is cannot be produced by what is not, but likewise that the more perfect, in other words, that which contains in itself more reality, cannot be the effect of the less perfect….


One assumes, perhaps erroneously, that those who feed us lies must therefore possess the Truth.  Here, then, is the dilemma for truth-seekers.  What if knowing the truth entails speaking falsehoods to the rest of the world?  We would like it not to be so, but what if the truth is so striking, so peculiar, so melancholic that the truth-seeker, despite herself, will ultimately  be obliged to be mendacious once they are brought before the Truth itself, if only to protect others from what she has come to know?  And if this were not the case, then wouldn’t someone have explained the Truth to us long ago?


One solution is to step back into a sort of pragmatic stance, and judge the pursuit of conspiracy theories ultimately to be delusional in nature.  But — and here’s the rub — doesn’t this go against the evidence we have that conspiracies do in fact occur.  Worse, isn’t this the sort of delusion, isn’t this the sort of lie, that prevents people from trying to unmask these conspiracies in the first place?  Or as Baudelaire informed us,


Mes chers frères, n’oubliez jamais, quand vous entendrez vanter le progrès des lumières, que la plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas!


If the conspiratorial nature of the world cannot be revealed as a truth, then it must first be revealed as a falsehood.  This is how Leo Strauss, one of the architects of modern neoconservatism, put it in his short but revealing essay, Persecution and the Art of Writing.  Because not everyone is morally, inetellectually, or constitutionally prepared to receive the Truth, truth should only ever be alluded to.  Hints should be dropped, intentional errors and contradictions presented, which will lead the astute and prepared student to ask the correct questions that will eventually initiate him into the company of the elite.  The obvious question rarely raised, then, is whether Strauss ever got the students he felt he deserved.  Or were the allusions too obscure, and the paradoxes too knotted for anyone to follow him along the royal path? 


Worse yet, could Pynchon’s suggestion from The Crying of Lot 49 be correct, and the pursuers of conspiracy in the end are the ones who make conspiracies come to life, taking on the task of hiding the truth that no one initially gave to them, protecting a truth that in the end does not exist?


Yet this denies what we all know in our hearts to be true.  Conspiracies do exist, though not always in the form we imagine them to.  Take, for instance, the recent excerpts in the poetry journal Exquiste Corpse from Nick Bromell’s upcoming The Plan” or How Five Young Conservatives Rescued America


 



Until now, “The Plan” has been merely a rumor. In the late 1980s,  young conservatives spent hours reverently speculating about it over drinks at “The Sign of the Indian King” on M Street, while across town frustrated young liberals in the think tanks around Dupont Circle darkly attributed every conservative victory to this mythic document.

By the mid-1990s, the myth started to fade as each succeeding triumph of the conservative movement made it increasingly improbable that any group, however brilliant, could have planed the whole campaign. Eventually people referred to “The Plan”  as one might refer to the Ark or to the gunman on the grassy knoll: intriguing but fantastical.


Brommell, however, was allowed to view the notes of a historian originally commissioned to write a history of The Plan — a project eventually discarded by the people who hired him — and publishes them for the first time in this online journal, revealing  both the inspiration for and the details of the secret manifesto that has guided the conservative movement for the past fourty years.


There are even anachronisms and contradictions that, for me at least, do much to confirm the veracity of the source.  One that has been mentioned by other commentators on the article is the fact that the included link to the National Enterprise Initiative (the organization founded by the authors of “The Plan” and which initially commissioned the aborted history) either doesn’t work or points to a bogus search site.  For many, this indicates that the original reporting is bogus.  But the obvious question remains as to why such a suposedly elaborate fiction will fail on such a minor detail as a web link?  Who doesn’t know how to post a weblink anymore? On the other side, is it really so remarkable that an organization that wishes to remain hidden should suddenly disappear, along with all traces of it, once an unmasking piece of journalism is published concerning it?  We are, after all, talking about the Internet, the veracity of which we all know to be dubious and mercurial, a vast palimpsest conspiracy. 


Does the fact that something is absent from the Internet prove that it does not exist?


Or is it rather the case, as Neuhaus wrote in his 1623 Advertissiment pieux et utile des freres de la Rosee-Croix, which demonstrated the true existence of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, a secret society who claimed to guide the history of Europe but that had only first been heard of in 1614 in Germany and quickly became the main topic of European discussion for the next quarter century regarding primarily the question ‘do they or do they not exist’:



By the very fact that they change and alter their name and that they mask their age, and that, by their own confession, they come and go without making themselves known, there is no Logician that could deny the necessity that they exist.