Melville: Chapter V: Breakfast. (Moby Dick. 1851)

Split_Decision_BreakfastChapter V: Breakfast

They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quite self-possessed in company. Not always, though: Ledyard, the great New England traveller, and Mungo Park, the Scotch one; of all men, they possessed the least assurance in the parlor. But perhaps the mere crossing of Siberia in a sledge drawn by dogs as Ledyard did, or the taking a long solitary walk on an empty stomach, in the negro heart of Africa, which was the sum of poor Mungo’s performances–this kind of travel, I say, may not be the very best mode of attaining a high social polish. Still, for the most part, that sort of thing is to be had anywhere.


Von Neumann: The Brain: The Nature of Nerve Impulses (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

GalvanifroescheStimulation of nerve cell is similar to two digital markers: 0 in the absence, 1 in the presence, of electrical impulse. This is a high level description of the more conspicuous aspects of nerve impulses—with nuance, the digital qualities are less clear.
“Natural componentry favors automata with more, but slower, organs, while the artificial one favors the reverse arrangement of fewer, but faster organs.” Thus “the human nervous system will pick up many logical or informational items, and process them simultaneously,” while a computer “will be more likely to do things successively. . . or at any rate not so many things at a time.” The nervous system is parallel, while computers are serial. But the two cannot always be substituted for one another—some calculations must be done serially, the next step must follow the one previous to it, while other calculations done parallel, to be done serially require immense memory requirements.

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (21-25)


XXI: On the Renown Which My Writings Will Bring You

Your greatest difficulty is yourself; for you are your own stumbling block. You do not know what you want. You are better at approving the right course than at following it out. You see where true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.

The belly will not listen to advice; it makes demands, it importunes. And yet it is not a troublesome creditor; you can send it away at a small cost, provided only that you give it what you owe, not merely all you are able to give.

Mumford: The Influence of Capitalism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

monopolyThe “romanticism of numbers” directly led to the rise of capitalism, already well-structured by the 1300s, and modern (double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange, letters of credit, speculation in ‘futures’) by the 1500s. The result: abstraction and calculation became part of the everyday lives of city people. Business became more abstract, concerned with non-commodities, imaginary futures, and hypothetical gains. Marx: “money does not disclose what has been transformed into it”–everything can be bought and sold. Money is the only thing one can acquire without limit. Money both grew out of a need through trade, as well as promoted increased trade. The continual and fast-paced development of machines can be attributed to the lure of commercial profit.

Von Neumann: The Computer: Characteristics of Modern Digital Machines (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

computerbrainComprises “active” and “memory” organs (he’s including “input” and “output” as part of “memory).

Active organs: perform basic logical actions, sense coincidences and anticoincidences, and combine stimuli, regenerate pulses to maintain pulse shapes and timing via amplification of the signals.

These functions were performed by (in historical succession): relays, tubes, crystal diodes, ferromagnetic cores, transistors, or by combinations of those.

A modern machine will contain 3,000-30,000 active organs, of which 300-2,000 are dedicated to arithmetic, and 200-2,000 to memory. Memory organs require further organs to service and administer them—the memory parts of the machine being around 50% of the whole machine.

Memory organs are classed by their “access time”—the time to store a number, removing the number previously stored, and the time to ‘repeat’ the number upon ‘questioning’ (that is, write/read times, respectively). To classify the speed, you could either take the larger of those two times, or the average of them. If the access time doesn’t depend on the memory address, it is called “random access” (RAM).

Memory registers can be built of active organs—which, while fastest, are also most expensive (i.e,. built out of vacuum tubes). Thus, for large-memory operations, it’s cost-prohibitive. Previously, relays were used as the active organs, and relay registers were used as the main form of memory.

It is possible, however, to reduce the required memory to solve a problem by considering not the total numbers needed in memory, but the minimum needed in memory at any given time. And if that can be determined, numbers can be distributed between faster memory, and slower memory, based on when they are needed—that is, perhaps all the numbers can be stored on the slower memory, while the necessary numbers of the moment are stored on the faster memory. I assume this is how computers now function—everything is stored on the hard drive, while the absolutely necessary things to the current operations are stored in the RAM.

Magnetic drums and tapes are currently (1950s) in use, while magnetic discs are being explored (and now, 2015, becoming obsolete in favor of SSDs).

Inputs are punched cards or paper tapes, outputs are printed or punched paper—that is, means for the machine to communicate with the outside world.

Words are saved directly to named numerical addresses within the memory of the machine—the address is never ambiguous.

Mumford: Space, Distance, Movement (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

hereford_mapCultures can be differentiated by their unique conceptions of space and time. Europe in the Middle Ages understood space and time in terms of arbitrary, religion-based symbolism. For instance, medieval cartography presents land masses and water as arbitrary shapes (see the Hereford Map), related to each other allegorically. Further, time was understood as something fluid, where in storytelling the past is happening now, so that it’s realistic to the medievel mind to transport a story from a thousand years ago into the present, or as in Botticelli’s The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, where three different times are presented at once. The result of this was the ability to understand what we presently only understand using science–ship’s drop off the horizon, demons drop down chimneys. Things in the world come and go in the same way as adults come and go in the eyes of children–things are all either mysteries or miracles. All things make sense through religion–“the true order of space was Heaven, even as the true order of time was Eternity.”

boticelliBetween the 14th and 17th centuries, space “as a hierachy of values” was replaced by “space as a system of magnitudes.” In painting, horizons, vanishing points, and visual relationships between things replaced symbolic relationships between things. Size no longer corresponded to divine proportions, but to distance, objects in relationship to one another. This meant a need to understand the world accurately. Space would now be measured in the same way time was measured with a clock. To understand something would be to place it, and to time it–how long to get there? By placing things geographically, there was now an incentive to explore and discover the world. And by graphing out the world, even while incomplete or inaccurate, there was now a basis of expectations, rather than the navigationally useless maps of the Middle Ages. Explorers did not need to hug the shoreline, as in the old maps, but could now launch into the open seas and return to roughly where they began. Eden and Heaven were no longer to be found on maps. The concepts of space and time require us to begin, arbitrarily, with here and now–their conquest is through measurement, and through their conquest, scientific advancement. And in conquering space and time, the importance of numbers and counting grew.

Samuel Fuller: The Naked Kiss (1964)

naked kissIt’s been a while since I really talked out of my ass. Let’s do this!

So–briefly, I dedicated my life to filmmaking. I made one film, which was enough to teach me I never wanted to make another one ever again—because filmmaking involves working with other people, and other people suck—specifically, other people who write uninspired, faux-gritty, noir-inspired scripts that can only be read as vehicles for overacting. Me? I worshipped Godard and Truffaut’s early work—particularly Breathless with its self-referential film noir qualities…so you can guess how our relationship played out. (I cut him out of production by keeping him out of the loop).

Anyway, I had this 40-minute masterpiece, back when I was confident enough to sneak into dirty hotel rooms and scream at my actors (complete strangers) “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NUDITY?” “OF COURSE YOU NEED TO PISS ON CAMERA INTO THE BATHTUB—AND YOU’RE DRINKING BEERS UNTIL YOU CAN SQUEEZE SOMETHING OUT!” I miss being confident and always right. Anyway, my masterpiece got edited down by the now-back-in-the-loop producer to, like, 10 minutes of crap since I wouldn’t use his neo-noir script, and the resulting crap won 4th place in a competition for grad students (I was all of 18 years old)—which, when I was informed of this on the last day of class, resulted in me cussing out the class for being such idiots, and quitting the film department.

One of the things we used to study was self-reflective films—and it all came rushing back to me when I watched Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. The self-reflective scene? When the over-acting cop undergoes an unexpected change of heart and acting ability, and tells the prostitute that the film can never end unless she stops over-acting also…in not so many words. She tones it down, the little girl confesses, and the movie ends.

Is it noir? I guess so. Fuller was associated with Fritz Lang at least as far back as the 1940s, removing us to the theatrical roots of German expressionism, so to some extent making the works of Fuller quintessentially pure noir.

Here’s the bottom line—I think Fuller’s Naked Kiss is pure schlock. Considering it from a collegiate standpoint, we’d probably focus in on undercurrent of childhood/motherhood/where babies come from:

  • ex-prostitute
  • begins film bald like a newborn baby
  • ends up sharing a room with a man—who happens to just be a sewing mannequin
  • becomes assistant in hospital for disabled children
  • weeps when she looks at a baby
  • pays her friend to skip town and secretly have her baby rather than abort it
  • reveals that she’s unable to have children
  • falls in love with guy over their shared ability to quote Lord Byron—(whose reputation for naughty love was pretty great, although Shelley might be more fitting since he killed more of his own children)
  • accidentally gets engaged to a child molester
  • navigates out of jail with the help of a pregnant woman and a molested child

The moral ambiguity results from the grandson of the town’s founder, the most popular guy in town, being a child molester; and the town’s other leading citizen, its favorite police officer, basically screwing every young woman that shows up in town before getting them jobs at his favorite brothel. And yet, he still approaches justice with a fair hand, which is what saves the heroine’s life. As she leaves the jail, she is surrounded by hundreds of the town’s mothers—supposedly to celebrate her saving the town’s children. They look like a lynch mob. We’d ultimately conclude that there’s some loss of innocence in America.

Where did noir come from? A combination of the crime literature popularized during the Depression—potentially before, as Richard Wright discusses his obsession with it in his boyhood (Black Boy)—as well as the visual techniques of German / Weimar Republic theater and cinema. It’s best known, though, as a 1940s and 50s American phenomenon, whether B-films or Humphrey Bogarts.

For this reason, I think the origins are perhaps most likely the response of German artists to the experience of WWI. French impressionist cinema bears many of the same hallmarks—subjectivity, hard lighting, disjointed narratives, a psychological focus. And whether it’s a nationalist backlash to Hollywood or picking up where the avant-garde left off, the result is a collective European reset on a post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, a world in which the horrors of the other, of technologically backwards villages in one’s own nation, of vampires and phantom carriages, of one’s unresolved childhood sexual urges are no longer what strikes fear in the hearts of the masses, the bourgeoisie, or even the intelligentsia. Now that everyone’s been to the same trenches, learned to fight under common banners, the same nightmares strike all survivors—yet, a common film language is inadequate to speak to this new, common reality.

The result, rather, is a common film language that rejoices in an off-kilter visual and narrative representation of what previously made sense. Why did it make sense previously? Because world history was a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order—for instance, turning India into a modern nation, Africa divided up into modern nations, the Middle East into modern nations—chaos to order, a notion that may have died in art, but certainly not in politics.

The old language was of love, folk tales, comedy—the new language is one of complexity, and mostly, one of darkness. Every viewer sees a different image on the screen in the distorted lenses, in the shadows, in the disorienting camera angles, and further, every viewer understands a different story, and at different rates. For once, it was possible to leave the theatre without a clue as to what’s transpired on-screen!

This was the generation that was forced out of an increasingly elegant universe into one in which morality held no bearing, where every man had spent time with prostitutes, murdered other innocent men, seen his closest friends tortured to death by that same science meant to help us live in health and happiness forever.

So, the generation who followed—they weren’t the first. What they inherited was a ready-made film language, as well as a world that everyone could agree was no longer particularly enlightened.

And that’s where I see American film noir: situationally post-modern, but not yet developed beyond a modernist language that doesn’t translate.


Mumford: The Monastery and the Clock (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

water-clock“The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age”

The clock “is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief in common human experience: throughout the year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between day and night steadily change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmers measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion, but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time—what Bergson calls duration—is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction—through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death—and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.”