Tuesday, June 21, 2005

She herself was a victim of that lust for books which rages in the breast like a demon, and which cannot be stilled save by the frequent and plentiful acquisition of books. This passion is more common, and more powerful, than most people suppose. Book lovers are thought by unbookish people to be gentle and unworldly, and perhaps a few of them are so. But there are others who will lie and scheme and steal to get books as wildly and unconscionably as the dope-taker in pursuit of his drug. They may not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at command. They want books as a Turk is thought to want concubines -- not to be hastily deflowered, but to be kept at their master's call, and enjoyed more often in thought than in reality. Solly was in a measure a victim of this unscrupulous passion, but Freddy was wholly in the grip of it.

-Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Aztec Religion

On that Saturday, I decided to eat my lunch in Dolores Park in the Mission. The amount of activity at the park is always surprising for its size. Tennis players in one corner. Children playing in another corner, not too far from where gay men in speedos sun themselves on a hot day. In between, Mission area hipsters have picnics alongside large Latin families. You can hear the ringing bell of the Mexican popsicle vendors with their little carts.

Entering the park, I heard the sound of drums. Loud and deep drumming coming from one edge of the park. I followed the sound and discovered that the drummers were a pair of men - tan, muscled men who seemed to be wearing not much more than colorful loincloths and feathered head-dresses. Flowers lay around their feet and they were circling three other people who kneeled solemnly. Two of them were a young couple. The third was an older woman who wore a colorful dress and had her eyes closed intently, as in a deep reverie. She sat among piles of flowers and incense.

I sat down to watch. Sitting around me were about twenty others who, by their dress or by their serious gaze, seemed to be part of all of this. There were also a few spectators, like myself, but most of the others didn't seem particularly dark or Latin.

Sitting near me was a young girl, in her late teens perhaps. She was tall and slender and beautiful with dark skin but sparkling green eyes. Tattoos, abstract glyphs from afar, decorated most of her bare legs.

"What is this about?" I asked her "What is going on here?"

"This is a wedding." She answered. "We are all descendants of the Mexica and these are our ceremonies, our rituals. We follow the old ways. Some think that we have disappeared but we are here, all around this area. Everyone here is so out of touch with their culture [waves her hand to indicate San Francisco] and they forget what came before them. They live their lives not aware of all the treasure they have inherited from their ancestors. These people here around us now, these tourists, they come and just watch, like its a show. They take pictures. But this isn't a show. This is how we honor the gods of Fire, the gods of Death and of Life. A wedding is a sacred event, like a harvest, that connects the old life with the new, and also how we say that we are still here and this will continue - forever."

"Until the end of the world?"

"Until the world is reborn."

"I am just here too, watching"

"Yes, but you are one of us, one of the tribe, are you not?. We are speaking Spanish but Spanish is the language of the conquerors. I am learning Nahuatl. You should too. You should join us."

"How do I find you again?"

"We are meeting next Saturday. Let me tell you the address..."

"Yes. Ok. I'll try to remember. Yes."

The Other Mexican Empire

When Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico. he stumbled into an existing war. Much of Cortes' skill, as documented in first-hand accounts such as Bernal Diaz del Castillo's Conquest of New Spain (a fantastic read!), was in knowing how to play different Mexican tribes off of each other. The Aztecs were great warriors but they were not well-loved.

Prior to the arrival of Cortes, the Aztec empire was not only fighting small border wars and dealing with internal conflicts but it was also in the midst of figuring how to deal with a formidable new enemy - the Tarascan empire which controlled much of Western Mexico.

The Tarascans were an independent Mexican empire. Their capital was at TzinTzunTzan, the land of the hummingbirds, where a series of small pyramids still stand today. Their language is an isolate, markedly different than other Mexican languages. Many linguists believe that the Tarascans were a South American tribe which had ventured north.

Whatever their origins, the Tarascans were clearly an advanced, warring state. Their metal-working skills were unrivaled in the New World and their new empire was quickly expanding. Over a period of approximately one hundred years, the Aztecs mounted several expeditions to try and conquer the Tarascans, but every attempt resulted in griveous losses. The most well-known is in 1478 where the Aztec king sent forth a force of 24,000 of his elite warriors. They were confronted, however, and ultimately decimated, by a force of over 40,000 Tarascans.

The Tarascans have not been as well-researched as the Aztecs. They left behind few written histories. But there has been a surge of recent interest. In an article titled "Mesoamerican Anomaly? The Pre-Conquest Tarascan State" one author writes:

Recent investigations, particularly over the past twenty years, have revealed a complex culture far more interesting than anyone had imagined. Not only did the Tarascans rule a substantial empire at the time of the Conquest, second in geographical size only to the Aztec – they had also created a culture which was in many ways unlike anything else in Mesoamerica.

As the Aztec empire was crumbling, the king, in a final act of desperation, sent messengers to the Tarascan king Tangaxoan. In effect, asking their greatest enemy for help. The Tarascan king sacrificed the Aztec messengers.

The Tarascans themselves fell quietly. Before the Europeans reached the West, the Tarascan empire was already crumbling from the ravaging effects of disease. Smallpox and Measles killed this powerful and mysterious empire.

Finally, a personal admission. I am Mexican but I am not descended from Aztecs. My paternal great-grandmother walked in bare feet and wore colorful skirts. She and her husband spoke no Spanish. They only spoke Tarascan.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Hinton's Cubes


-From C.H. Hinton (click for larger pictures)

Charles H. Hinton, the author of the 1906 book The Fourth Dimension, believed he had developed a system that would allow anyone to actually visualize the fourth spatial dimension. He went one further and invented a set of colored cubes that, if used properly, would develop this 4th spatial sense.

The 2nd dimension is best visualized as a piece of paper. Inhabitants of this piece of paper can move left or right (1 dimension), backwards and forward (2nd dimension) but cannot move out of the paper up or down (3rd dimension). We are three dimensional creatures who live in a three dimensional space. The fourth dimension is yet another "direction" that we cannot point to, anymore than an inhabitant of the piece of paper can point out of the page.

Hinton was the son-in-law of the famous logician George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic. He was obsessed with the possibilities of the fourth dimension and published several books on the subject.

His visualization attempts focused on the Tesseract, a word which he coined himself and made its way into popular culture, for example in Madeleine L'Engle's children's book A Wrinkle in Time. A Tesseract is a four-dimensional object which completes the following analogy:

Square (2-d) is to Cube (3-d) as Cube (3-d) is to Tesseract (4-d)

A Tesseract wont fit into our universe. Although, we can construct both the shadow a Tesseract would make onto our plane and we can also construct an unfolded Tesseract. An unfolded Tesseract, for example, is the cross that Christ hangs from in Salvador Dali's Corpus Hypercubus.

The premise behind Hinton's colored cubes is that with sufficient exercise one can develop an intuition for how four-dimensional objects move and rotate in our space. Although it makes no sense at first, the properties of four-dimensional objects are well-defined and known precisely.

After a period of limited popularity, Hinton and his strange cubes lapsed into obscurity. They were re-discovered again in the 1950's when they were featured in an article in Scientific American by Martin Gardner. Gardner presented some of the same history I have given here. Shortly after the publication of his article, he received a series of letters from readers who were both amazed and also a little concerned about the rediscovery of the cubes. Here is one such letter:

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton's cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.
As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one's mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one's own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn't recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

After Gardner's article and another small revival, the cubes were again forgotten. Recently the author Rudy Rucker has also tried to revive interest in Hinton's toys. Although I haven't felt the urge to do so, my copy of Hinton's book gives all the details for constructing the cubes.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

This week I just received my copy of the "Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1990, Fifteenth Anniversary Report" in the mail. All 1600 of my college classmates, their lives laid out on the page. Except of course for those 11 listed in the back of the book as Deceased, including Maria Psychas, talented and beautiful, an acquiantance of mine who died long before her time.

In the 5th year report, and to some extent in the 10th year report, the dominant theme was success and ambition. Everyone was making partner in their Law or Consulting or Investment Banking Firm. Everyone was writing a favorably-reviewed book, touring the world giving concerts or working hard at the billion-dollar Internet firm they had founded.

Now, in the 15 year report, there is a change and it is visible to everyone. One girl, who I happen to know is a famous Hollywood TV writer and Producer with a string of well-known TV series to her credit, mentions this not at all. Instead she writes:

I have heard the opinion expressed that there is no point in a woman getting a Harvard education if she's just going to shunt her career aside in favor of being a mother. Of course, that presumes there is nothing before or after being a mother and that it wouldn't be awfully nice to have a mother who could explain Latin American history or Shakespeare....it got me thinking what it all means, this new religion called parenting. It is easy to satirize the parent of today, but I think parenting had to become a religion because it is competing with the religion called career.

Another acquiantance, who grew up near me and is now a succesful investment banker in Manhattan, devotes the space in his biography to encouraging other classmates to call and set up "playdates" between his children and theirs.

In an email mailing list, set up to allow all of us to communicate, yet another classmate (and former roommate of mine) writes:

I'm not going to be at the [reunion] but I, like [another classmate], am pretty interested in what the whole thing means. One interesting thing was that the 15th anniversary reports followed a much tighter typology than the 10th--I think kids are a crucial homogenizing moment, at least externally.

There are still some in the Report who write about their career trajectory but, with few exceptions, they tend to be single. After 15 years our class seems to have suffered a stark split into two religions- the religion of family and the religion of career. On the other hand, 40% of us, including me, wrote nothing at all. What is the third religion?

Thursday, June 02, 2005


I write little notes all the time - on my laptop, on scraps of paper, or as remembered things, cued off a mnemonic. Sometimes I develop these notes into fuller thoughts or into short essays. But most often they remain nothing more than short hints or observations.

These are my index cards to life. I've made thousands of them over the years. I've lost hundreds. Most are uncategorized. Some, I have sorted into categories such as:

Broken Mirror
Frozen Time
Truth as Narrative
Cultural Horizons
Love, Love, Love
Levels of Consciousness
The Land of Stepping Stones
Truth is Beauty
The Puzzle-Solvers
and so on...

The following ones are a few categorized under: The Labyrinth of Memory

Funes, the Memorious

We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils.

-Borges, Funes the Memorious

The Art of Memory

I've written before that I see the world as it is seen by a cartographer. Words, ideas, and especially numbers are concrete things which inhabit a space in my mind. All sequences curl up into spirals (this is true of both the numbers and the alphabet) and both wind and unwind as I view them, rearranging and twisting into angles I can view. Old memories are disconnected islands. Hazy memories are dissolving substances; I try to rebuild them by pasting other memories on them, the way one might slap clay onto clay. Thin, electric lines (of experience?) weave these disjointed spaces together.

The Elaborate Art of Memory Palaces

It was Matteo Ricci, that wandering Jesuit, who introduced the art of memory palaces to Eastern civilization. A memory palace is a method for visualizing all of your memories, an internal architecture which may start as a small house and then expand to include several floors, balconies, hidden chambers. Later, you may add closets or an extra garden, each new space appearing as a repository, a storehouse for your memories. The place should also be fictive, a new creation, so as to flexibly accomodate the unpredictable accumulation of memories.

Jonathon Spence, in his book on Ricci adds:

"Therefore the Chinese should struggle with the difficult task of creating fictive places, or mixing the fictive with the real, fixing them permanently in their minds by constant practice and review so that at last the fictive spaces become "as if real, and can never be erased."

Sacred land

In the same trip to France in which I encountered the dead man, I also visited Mont St. Michel.

We arrived late at the night and that is the best time to arrive. The tourists have all gone back to their hotels but the stone corridors of the Mount are open, the recessed lights cast their glow like torches and, even if briefly, you feel as if you have stepped out of the river of time.

The next day we ran up to the top where the small church at the pinnacle was beginning a Mass. The windows were all open, with their wide views of the muddy plain below. We all had on layers of jackets, huddling from the bitter winds of the French winter. The morning sun lit up the church, cast its rays upon the stone walls and reflected off the swinging thurible which threw out its own incense curls. We sang and then prayed softly, the air disturbed now only by the exhales of frosted breath.

Dreaming tracks

"It was during his time as a school-teacher that Arkady learned of the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as 'Dreaming-tracks' or 'Songlines'; to the Aboriginals as the 'Footprints of the Ancestors' or the 'Way of the Law'.
Aboriginal creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path - birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes - and so singing the world into existence"

-from Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

If memory palaces are a scheme which invents a landscape to accomodate memories then the Australian songlines are the inverse: Invented memories or songs which are used to create an internal map of an existing physical landscape. Each architectural is named and placed within a story. The narrative develops along with the path on the landscape. A particular tale also marks a pathway.