Monday, January 29, 2007


Like all recovering academics, I know how to write a thesis statement. Mercifully, I’ve forgotten why, or maybe when. So one month in, what is it I think I’m doing here? This is my New Year’s project: blogging my way through Against the Day, at a rate of about 3 pages a day, a blog every other day, or so. And today isn’t any other day, you know: a slightly possessed Chicago reminder, and warning! Steal this at your peril (and that would be the peril of appearing exceedingly dull indeed, the living correlate of the null hypothesis.)

Traversing the web to post irregular illuminations to Pynchon’s text.

webs that when the early daylight was right could cause you to stand there just stupefied. (p.76)

I like the image of the literary crow-- raucous, social, sharp-eyed creature of a certain subversive intelligence and particular tastes, drawn to shiny things.

Our first example of a hermetic project is taken from "fault tree" analysis of nuclear reactors to determine their safety.

I am especially keen on scientists caught in unguarded Pynchonian moments of camaraderie and geeky enthusiasm, the kind of passionate individualists Gary Larson drew and Errol Morris delights in drawing out. The web in all its crosscurrents and blind corners is natural habitat for these rarae aves.

In summary, we consider the following aspects of hermetic projects: (1) the null hypothesis h0; (2) the application of the null hypothesis to problems (the "problem-solving" meaning of paradigm); (3) the application of more general considerations (the "sociological" or paradigmatic hypothesis H0) to the revision of the null hypothesis; (4) the rejection of apparent anomalies as experimental error or as "resolvable in due course"; (5) psychological investment of the participants in the project; and (6) sociological support by the community of participants for the project.

Hey look, it’s the sociology of science. I was laughing about this just the other day. Other constructs that I stumble across again and again in these wanderings: giant squid; sausage making, literal and figurative; Victorian dinosaur pioneers Waterhouse Hawkins and Richard Owen, prototypical Pynchon protagonists par excellence.

Two mysteries:

Following his success with the Crystal Palace Exhibition, Hawkins came to New York City… he set up a studio (shown at left) on what is now the site of the American Museum of Natural History on the upper West Side of Manhattan, and began to assemble a new menagerie of sculptured dinosaurs. The plan was to set them up in a "Paleozoic Museum" in Central Park, which was then being landscaped under the direction of Frederick Law Olmstead…

However, in 1871, before either the park or the dinosaurs were finished, New York City politics intervened. The corrupt Tammany Hall-Boss Tweed machine took control of city politics, and Hawkins and his dinosaurs were out. Those models that had been made were broken up and buried in the south end of the park, and Hawkins left New York a greatly embittered man. Although Central Park has been modified in the years since its inception, including the construction of the 8th Ave subway line which runs up the west side of the park, the remains of Hawkins' dinosaurs have never been found. They still rest somewhere under the sod of Central Park, probably not far from Umpire Rock and the Heckscher ballfields (see picture and Central Park map at left). Could one of the pitchers' mounds really be a small embankment covering the severed head of Megalosaurus? Who knows, maybe so.

Could that explain the Yankees?


Why, in the nine billion name of the deity, does the Microsoft spellchecker not recognize the forms of the verb, to blog? I blog, you blog, he blogs…

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Cowboy's Christmas

Meanwhile, in Colorado mining country, with Pynchon's Against the Day.

Yes, Virginia there is an Amalgamator. It’s the newsletter of the Milwaukee section of the American Chemical Society. Don’t miss their upcoming talk, “Love, Pain and Chocolate: Musings of a Structural Scientist on the true Meaning of Valentine’s Day.” Sounds like an Almodóvar film, no?

The Chemical Cartoons alone are worth the price of admission. Remember, ardent chemists, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Oh Thurn and Taxis

Eclectic annotations on Pynchon's Against the Day.

A Pynchonian grace note passes between Webb Traverse and blasting buddy Veikko, the mad Finn. Webb notices Veikko “reading over and over to himself a withered postcard from Finland” (p.84)

“Look, these aren’t real stamps here,” Veikko said.” “They are pictures of stamps. The Russians no longer allow Finnish stamps, we have to use Russian ones. These postmarks? They’re not real either. Pictures of postmarks. …

“So this is a postcard with a picture of what a postcard used to look like before the Russians. That’s what minneskort means?”

“Memory card. A memory of a memory.”

See the Thurn und Taxis page from San Narcisco Community College, inspired by The Crying of Lot 49.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pynchon 2, SteelR 0

Placing bets on Pynchon's Against the Day

No grand vista (so much for my prediction), but we do get to Colorado, in “wind meaner than any he could remember since Chicago, full of ice crystals and hostile intent,” (p.75) and meet Webb Traverse.

In a moment of felicitous synchronicity Webb tells Merle of a job for a man who knows his way around quicksilver (p.78),

“Little Hellkite they’re lookin for an amalgamator, seein ‘s how with the altitude and breathin in those fumes, the current one’s got it into his head he’s the President.”

“Oh. Of. . . ?”

“Put it this way, he has this nipper with a harmonica foll’n him around everywhere playin Hail to the Chief. Out of tune. Goes off into long speeches nobody can understand, declared war on the state of Colorado last week.”

And to elaborate the theme, this isn’t Pynchon, but it should be: Randy Newman’s anthem for our times.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Goodness, gracious

Great balls of lightning! --Pynchon’s Against the Day, p. 73

Fine photo from a conspiracy site. (I’m not sure what the conspiracy is, sounds like chemistry to me.)

And an explanation from a New Zealand scientist.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Rolling westward

With Pynchon in Against the Day
After the closing of the Columbian Fair, once out of Chicago and into the land again, Dally and Merle…
As his characters range far and wide across what many of us snidely refer to as flyover country, and some of us call home, let’s listen to the range of voices in a single paragraph (p.70):

Planted rows went turning past like giant spokes one by one as they ranged the roads. The skies were interrupted by dark gray storm clouds with a flow like molten stone, swept and liquid, and light that found its way through them was lost in the dark fields but gathered shining along the pale road, so that sometimes all you could see was the road, and the horizon it ran to.

The establishing shot, detailed and dramatic as Muir or McPhee, animated by metaphor poetic and precise, wheels within wheels, gears engaging to drive the motion forward, photographer Merle Rideout’s sense of light and shadow washing the scene in grayscale, brings us to a specific technicolor POV (Rideout’s young daughter Dally):

Sometimes she was overwhelmed by the green life passing in such high turbulence, too much to see, all clamoring to have its way. Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, downy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day—flowers in bells and clusters, purple and white or yellow as butter, star-shaped ferns in the wet and dark places, millions of green veilings before the bridal secrets in the moss and under the deadfalls, went on by the wheels creaking and struck by rocks in the ruts, sparks visible only in what shadow it might pass over, a busy development of small trailside shapes tumbling in what had to be deliberately arranged precision, herbs the wild-crafters knew the names and market prices of and which the silent women up in the foothills, counterparts whom they most often never got even to meet, knew magic uses for.
Anchored by that amazing 123-word sentence, worthy of Proust. I love the introduction/disclaimer “too much to see”, echoed at the end by the “counterparts whom they most often never got even to meet”, which sets up the purely Pynchonian conclusion:

They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.
Proust is specifically invoked by the dialog which follows, dialog Proust could never have written (but not because he was at all unfamiliar with the complex and crosswise longings underlying it):

“There. Smell that?”
A sense at the edge of her memory, ghostly as if a presence from a former life had just passed through. . . [her lost mother] Erlys. “Lily of the valley. Sort of.”
“It’s ‘seng. Fetches top dollar, so we’re gonna eat for a while. Look. Little red berries there?”
“Why are we whispering?” Peering up from under her flowered bonnet-brim.
“Chinese believe the root is a small person, who can hear you coming and so forth.”
“We’re Chinese?”
He shrugged as if he wasn’t sure. “Don’t mean it ain’t the truth.”
“And cash crop here or whatever, we still aren’t going to use the money to try and find Mama, are we?”
Should’ve seen that coming. “No.”
“When then?”
“You’ll get your turn, Trooper. Sooner than you think.”
“Ain’t mine to promise. Just how it works.”
“Well don’t sound so happy about it.”
Reading these two passages together is like finding a Dürer next to a Warhol, in the same hand. Astonishing. I don’t even know how you get those rhythms, but he does. Page by page, day by day. I doubt that Tom was idle, these ten years.

While I can’t place bets with the big dogs who are rounding page 700, I imagine this is tending toward that most American of vistas, heading west: the first glimpse of the Rockies rising improbably, yet undeniably from the endless prairie plain.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Itinerant technicals

Merle rides out:
(Pynchon's Against the Day, p.66)
Just like that, as if some period of youthful folly had expired, it seemed time to move on—
Huckleberry Finn, last sentence:
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.

Lights Out for the Territory, first line:
The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city,

"Iain Sinclair walks the streets of London compulsively, and reads the hidden language of the city like no other writer. Lights Out for the Territory transforms our sense of Britain, as Sinclair's strange connections between places and people remake the crazed pattern of urban life, from pitbulls to spooks, from gangsters to Lord Archer. This book is what literature should be about: intensity of language, humane wisdom and controlled anger." Granta

Executive Summary
Lighting Out for the Terascale:

Particle physicists are about to light out for a vast new scientific terra incognita. When they do, later in this decade, they will encounter a territory of discovery that many of them have theorized and dreamed about all their lives. This unexplored country is the Terascale, named for the Teravolts of particle accelerator energy that will open it up for scientific discovery. The next generation of particle accelerators are physicists' tickets to the Terascale and the mysteries that it harbors about the nature of the physical laws that govern the universe. Once they've seen the Terascale, physicists believe, the universe will never look the same.

Including a fantastic link for postcards from the edge of the universe, the frontiers of technology, the bounds of the beyond.