W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn

As our inaugural book, we read W.G. Sebald‘s Rings of Saturn.



I suppose it is submerged memories that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?


This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.


Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.


Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.

Things that came up during the discussion (in no particular order):

In keeping with the theme of quasi-autobiographic meandering rants, our next reading will be Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932). We will meet at 3:30pm PT Sunday, 22 November 2009.

Chat Dérive: I Ran in to Someone on the Web

Something odd happened to me today. I ran into a complete stranger on the Internet.

I signed into chat, and almost immediately had the conversation below with someone I didn’t know, going by the handle “toweringcoho”. I was at a largish gathering and had bonjour turned on as usual, so assumed it was someone in the room—even though I didn’t bother to look to see what chat connection toweringcoho was using.

A quick Google search suggested that “toweringcoho” is the name of one of a series of IM bots that randomly connect to otherwise unconnected chat users.

And that’s how I met Sunil Khiatani from Hong Kong. It took a while for both of us to figure out that we were NOT talking to robots, and a bit longer to introduce ourselves. In the end, we had a worthy conversation, got to know each other a bit, and went on our ways.

I’m not sure if these IM bots are supposed to be malicious, but I liked what happened. It was like going on a kind of unintentional dérive in text only.

6:45:55 PM toweringcoho: Hi, Billy Mays here with another fantastic coho.
6:46:40 PM Nate Angell: wish I knew what that meant…
6:46:52 PM toweringcoho: hmmm
6:46:59 PM toweringcoho: take a wild guess
6:47:04 PM Nate Angell: salmon?
6:47:23 PM toweringcoho: you definitely aren’t turing complete
6:47:39 PM Nate Angell: human error
6:48:06 PM toweringcoho: are you related to skynet?
6:48:51 PM Nate Angell: maybe on the distaff side
6:49:14 PM toweringcoho: ahh
6:50:01 PM toweringcoho: here’s the thing though, will skynet be porgrammed with the 3 robot laws and if so would it still be able to nuke us?
6:50:28 PM Nate Angell: did the 3 robot laws really work out? have to refer to the text
6:50:54 PM toweringcoho: dunno about the text, but in the movies they didn’t
6:51:55 PM Nate Angell: isn’t the book always better than the movie?
6:52:21 PM toweringcoho: naw
6:52:28 PM toweringcoho: fight club is better movie wise :D
6:53:22 PM Nate Angell: didn’t read fight club
6:55:24 PM toweringcoho: so who are you? :P
6:55:41 PM Nate Angell: @xolotl
6:55:56 PM toweringcoho: huh?
6:56:11 PM Nate Angell: you definitely aren’t turing complete
6:56:30 PM toweringcoho: yeah yeah
6:56:57 PM Nate Angell: that should be enough to go on
6:57:20 PM toweringcoho: naw it isn’t
6:57:45 PM Nate Angell: there’s this thing called google…
6:58:15 PM toweringcoho: nad what should I be searching for
7:01:19 PM Nate Angell: @xolotl
7:01:34 PM Nate Angell: it’s a pretty unique character string
7:02:31 PM toweringcoho: you’re nate angel?
7:03:23 PM Nate Angell: no, I’m Nate Angell
7:04:05 PM toweringcoho: ah close enough
7:04:08 PM Nate Angell: or, perhaps A dog-like deity, Double of Quetzalcoatl
7:04:10 PM toweringcoho: how come you’re contacting me :P
7:04:25 PM Nate Angell: you contacted me
7:04:48 PM toweringcoho: I did???
7:05:10 PM Nate Angell: I think there’s an AIM chat robot that connects random users
7:05:14 PM Nate Angell: and we are victims
7:05:30 PM toweringcoho: ahhh
7:05:36 PM toweringcoho: strange
7:05:58 PM toweringcoho: thi is my yahoo account though
7:07:41 PM Nate Angell: i think they are all connected
7:07:52 PM Nate Angell: so you know me, want to iintroduce your self?
7:08:16 PM toweringcoho: alright
7:08:27 PM toweringcoho: I’m Sunil Khiatani, I’m a coder in Hong Kong :D
7:08:37 PM Nate Angell: very cool
7:08:40 PM Nate Angell: what do you code?
7:08:56 PM Nate Angell: Sunil Khiatani doesn’t sound very HK ;)
7:09:21 PM toweringcoho: at the moment, stuff for work. Web Services in ASP.NET and C# :\
7:09:30 PM Nate Angell: sorry
7:09:33 PM toweringcoho: been trying to do OSS coding but I’ve been lazy
7:09:41 PM Nate Angell: that would be better!
7:09:53 PM Nate Angell: as you may have learned, I’m a bit of an OSS zealot
7:10:22 PM toweringcoho: haha yeah a lot of people freak out when I tell them that I’m an indian born in Hong Kong that has a fairly american accent
7:10:31 PM toweringcoho: yeah I think I did, what do you code ?
7:10:34 PM Nate Angell: i guess HK has all types
7:10:36 PM toweringcoho: bbs.. loo
7:10:50 PM Nate Angell: I’m not much of a coder
7:11:13 PM Nate Angell: but I usually evangelize around http://sakaiproject.org http://drupal.org and http://openid.net
7:11:35 PM Nate Angell: there are many worthy projects, depending on your interests
7:11:50 PM Nate Angell: I encourage you to broaden your skills/interests with OSS
7:16:25 PM toweringcoho: I have a few interests
7:16:46 PM toweringcoho: but i think I should focus on the KDE desktop, it’s waht i like and use the most
7:19:26 PM Nate Angell: that’s a worthy project

Tagging My Unconscious With Twitter

@xolotl Tweetcloud 2008After my first 1,000 tweets on twitter, I’ve generated this tweetcloud:

Which demonstrates my tweeted theory: tweetclouds are like a tagcloud of one’s unconscious the tags you would really make if you didn’t think about it too hard. Corollaries are that tagclouds represent your conscious, and unsent emails, your id.

Clearly my unconscious has been dominated recently by the revolutionary debate between the valiant Portvangelistas and their nefarious nemeses, Portvangelists like @kveton, @chrisorourke and @metafluence. I have a dream that one day we will all be marshaled to a common purpose, and my unconscious and tweetcloud will move on to brighter, shinier subjects ;)

On the other hand, after my first 1,000 tweets, I can clearly see the value in twitter:

  • Building community: Twitter has let me connect quickly and deeply with both a local community and distributed communities with shared interests.
  • Professional development: While at times it can be distracting, I’ve learned more via twitter in the last month than in any technology learning experience I’ve ever had.
  • Intelligence gathering: Who needs feeds and the NYT when you follow 100 of the right tweeple?
  • Human resources: A fellow twitterer responded to my call for a technical position within 3 minutes of my tweet.
  • Public relations: If you do it right, twitter can help you create “word on the tweet” for your project or company. Oregon twitters, keep an eye out for Sasquatch ;)
  • Customer relations: I see projects like Flock using twitter effectively to gather feedback and provide support.
  • Creative energy: I’ve seen more ideas get hatched, and in many cases, realized, on twitter than anywhere but the best gatherings I’ve attended. It’s like a neverending barcamp with no space limitations.

Twitter may not fulfill these purposes for ever, but there is clearly a niche between asynchronous semi-permanence of email and the gated community of instant messaging. IRC has filled this niche for the geekly, now twitter brings it to the masses.

Phoenix: It’s Not ALL Goldwaterwasting Utilitaurs

Now that I’m working for rSmart, I expect to need to be at their HQ in Phoenix, Arizona fairly often. Being a native Coloradan, I probably don’t need to belabor our general attitude toward Phoenix: This land of water- and gas-guzzling conservative golfers should not exist.

But now that I’ve matured (some), I’m trying to have a more open mind. Also, as I have to keep coming back to Phoenix for work, I should try to find something here to like (besides my awesome colleagues at rSmart).

Serendipity and Google (is there a difference?) led me to search online for a bed and breakfast in Phoenix for my current trip after the soulless corporate hotel I expected to stay at was booked. Top results returned the ZenYard, where I’m staying now. For way less cost than the corporate hotel, I’m a guest at this charming, friendly, spotlessly clean B&B. I can join in the group yoga classes, swim in the pool, soak in the jacuzzi (Warning: iPhones work in jacuzzis, but not afterward), and chat with the nice guys that run the place about their vision to make it even more awesome. The zenmasters tell me they are one of only three B&B’s in PHX, which confirms my suspicion that there’s a general lack of imagination down here, but there’s also an opportunity. For a single night or a longer stay (ZenYard is finishing the detached guest houses with full kitchens now), you don’t have to be be zen to need zen.

Left to my own devices Friday night, I tried an experiment to see whether an iPhone alone could lead me on a worthy tour of Phoenix nightspots that wouldn’t make my allergy to plastic places and people break out. Starting from the “Skyharbor” airport (whatever that’s supposed to mean, can I catch a a blimp for the moon there?), I googled “phoenix cool bars” and the first two results were azcentral.com articles on five and ten great Phoenix bars. Switching to the iPhone’s gmap function, I put in the address for what sounded the best on the list and 15 minutes later I was drinking a draft Dogfish Head IPA (it’s not local to PHX, but it sure is good) and grooving to an eclectic DJ mix at Carly’s Bistro. Carly’s was so good, I’m back this morning for a delicious brunch, consisting mostly of figs (ie, a prosciutto/fig/cheese panini and a fresh fig salad), coffee and more Dogfish Head, while Carly herself educates me on Phoenix’s alternative scene and I’m using the wifi to blog this entry. Carly probably belongs in PDX, but instead she’s bringing those values to PHX: Go Carly!

Next up was Hidden House, a spacious dive bar with pool and darts on one side and a DJ/live act club on the other. It was sort of empty and the DJ wasn’t hitting my groove at that moment, so I decided to save the $5 cover and come back another time. HH seemed like a good bet if you want to drink or dance without suffering pretensions.

Not far away was Shady’s Lounge, a small hipster joint that should’ve been dark and smoky, but was just dark thanks to the small herd of cancer stick addicts braving the chill on the patio, obeying what I hear is a new anti-smoking law. They only had usual suspects on tap (eg, Sierra Nevada), so I went with a bottle of Stone IPA. A friendly group called me over to share some of their Belgian Chimay and we chatted it up until closing. This poor girl at the next table’s date had passed out, so in keeping with the friendly spirit, I gave them a ride home.

The girl dumped her drunk date at his place a few blocks away and convinced me to drive her to the nearby Glam danceclub where she talked us in for free. Glam maybe sums up the incongruity of Phoenix: on the inside, you would have thought Glam was a NYC East Village afterhours place from the early 90s. On the outside, Glam was just a slot in a nondescript, trashy minimall between a tax prep storefront and a temp job agency (thanks Google street view for enabling me to be specific about Glam’s lowrent neighbors). I called it a night and returned to the calm of the ZenYard, thinking that in Phoenix, maybe sometimes the ugly is only skin deep.

Next time I’m in PHX, Carly told me about her friend’s independent hotel, the Clarendon, which also supposedly has a cool rooftop bar. If I’m zenned out, maybe I’ll stay there next. For sustenance, I wanted to try The Roosevelt also.

PS: A “utilitaur” is my wife’s term for the suburban housewife at the helm of her mighty SUV. Like the half-human, half-horse centaur, the half-human, half-machine utilitaur is a dangerous beast, especially when encountered while driving and mobilephoning.