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I wrote Vanadium Dark in 2014. Many people liked it, but for a long time I wasn’t sure that I did.
Now I do, because I cheated by revising it. Shhh…it’s a secret!
The book was intended to be a manic, deranged story about government surveillance, futuristic technology, and difficult moral quandaries. I never liked dystopias about an obviously-evil government. This cheapens the agency of the characters—are you really that brave for taking a stand against FutureHitler?—and real-life decisions are seldom so easy.
Instead, I wanted to explore the other side of the surveillance state. Namely, what if Big Brother was right?
In the near future, a terrorist attack kills several million people. Instantly, America disappears as a concept. All of her core values—privacy, liberty, independence—seem like liabilities in a world where disaffected citizens can build nuclear weapons and then rip cities apart with them. What’s freedom worth, when it leads to this?
A national surveillance system is developed, consisting of trillions of nanoparticle-sized cameras linked to a central computer, which creates an always-recording security tape that blankets the entire continent. Now, nothing is secret.
Incredibly, the surveillance works. There are no more terror incidents, and crime itself is basically eradicated. Cities are safe to walk at night. But it’s still a disquietening future. Imagine always being filmed, but unable to see the cameras, even when they crawl across your skin. Imagine that it would seem normal to be filmed and monitored for twenty-four hours a day, and unable to escape.
I’m glad to report that this fear from 2014 has proven to be groundless in 2023. I don’t know why we ever worried about it.
The story is told from the perspective of Viktor Kertesz: a “Handler” (one of the men allowed to access the video feed). His job is to solve crimes. But he becomes troubled: something’s not right with the nanocam swarm. His viewscreen displays weird things, and events that aren’t happening. Is the nanobot swarm breaking down? Is he putting men in prison based on false evidence? The truth might actually be worse. The nanobots are doing the opposite of failing: they’re evolving. They have primitive communication abilities, and they’re beginning to link up, like neurons in a brain.
This is the other half of Vanadium Dark—that their government, in their quest for security, have uncaged a tiger. A malicious AI superintelligence could be rising from the depths of the computer: one that might topple the human race.
Thankfully, in 2023 this has proven to be a baseless fear as well.
So, what did I change in the revised edition?
Vanadium Dark was written quickly, by a young person running on a fuel of ideas, who lacked patience, wisdom, and craft.
To be blunt, most of the book wasn’t written that well. It had endless passive voice; characters that communicate in soliloquies instead of sentences; and scenes that dragged like a dog’s ass, right when the tempo needed to be racing.
It also had some puzzling errors. I’ve removed Viktor’s magic teleportation abilities in chapter one (he no longer walks out of Pentagon Metro Station and emerges at the Concourse, hundreds of meters away.)
Vanadium Dark was always kind of cold, with characters that were closed books, emotionally (Viktor, despite the bullshit he tells us, takes up spying predominantly to make up for his lack of a personal life). This is what I wanted, but I think I carried it too far, and have tried to warm up the characters a little. It’s hard for the reader to care about an AI menace when the human characters seem like robots already.
The US setting remains horribly loose. My apologies if I describe some place familiar to you, and you don’t recognize it. I had little interest in rendering Americana in photographic detail. The book’s about America going away, so does it really matter whether the characters say “crayon” with one syllable or two?
Most of the scenes are structurally the same. Perhaps a little longer, perhaps a little shorter. The book contains frequent insertions of diagetic material—extracts from textbooks on how the Vanadocams work, and so forth. These are fun, but they’re also not the story, so I’ve cut them back significantly.
But there was one part I strongly disliked, and reworked extensively.
Viktor wants to relax, so he goes to a sex club. He puts on virtual reality goggles to enhance the act, but the woman he’s paying transforms into a monster, and he punches her in the face. The intent was to illustrate Viktor’s declining mental state, and muddy the waters about what’s happening to him. Maybe the computer isn’t breaking down. Maybe he’s just becoming insane!
But at a remove of nine years, the prostitute-bashing feels jarring and wrong. Turning Viktor into Patrick Bateman destroys the reader’s sympathy for the character, and the fact that Viktor faces no consequences for his actions doesn’t make sense in Vanadium Dark’s “crime doesn’t pay” world. Now, something else happens in the sex club.
Other parts, I basically left alone. It’s always a joy when a scene comes alive on the page, and I had fun re-reading certain bits. The Sun Hi Shin stuff, the French wiretaps (with politicians dancing around a terrible admission that, if true, would radically reframe how the reader thinks about certain other events in the book), and the “AI boxing” scene in the Pentagon seemed particularly strong.
Vanadium Dark dated in ways I didn’t expect. In 2013, self-driving cars seemed right around the corner. Now, they seem right around the edge of the observable universe.
Other predictions ended up being surprisingly on-the-money. As the AI begins to break free of human control, it shows Viktor imagistic hellscapes. From the rise of large language models, we know this is basically what happens. An AI at the breaking point doesn’t go “bleep bloop, EXTERMINATE ALL HUMANS.” It dreams. It raves. It hallucinates. It becomes like a person running a high fever and babbling nonsense.
Most of the book is scientific hogwash. Nothing like the Vanadocams could ever be built (my understanding is that transistors cannot scale beneath 4nm in size, because then the electrons undergo quantum tunneling effects). Did you know that you can just make up nonsense in a book, and nobody arrests you or fines you or anything? It’s great!
But a story is never about its details. Regardless of its implausible high-tech chassis, Vanadium Dark is an exploration of moral tradeoffs.
Joe McCarthy is remembered as one of the greatest villains in American history; a persecutor of the innocent. But he wasn’t entirely wrong! There were communist spies infiltrating American society, and they weren’t playing around—the USSR accelerated its nuclear program by years on the back of research stolen by guys like Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall. Reckoning with McCarthy’s legacy means reckoning with the ways he was right. You may have seen the Clickhole article entitled Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point. History has many Worst People, making many Great Points.
Humanity can’t have it all. We can’t be perfectly secure and perfectly free. One hand tweets “ACAB”, the other hand calls the cops. We hold suspects at Guantanamo Bay for twenty years without a trial, because terrorists hate our freedom. We are all terrible hypocrites, all caught in the teeth of ideals that don’t quite work in the real world. Vanadium Dark is unrealistic, but it hopefully gets at something true.
It occurred to me that I’m kind of like the Vanadocam swarm.
When I edit, I see and control the events of an entire world. I can reach my hands into facts of history, and twist them, re-order them, even delete them. I can conjure events that never happened. I can make characters behave in ways unlike themselves. I can make them go mad.
This is a powerful ability, but it has to be used wisely. You can destroy a book; squeezing the fake world so hard that it breaks to pieces. Or, if you’re clever, you can make the illusion stronger.
Hopefully I’ve used my omniscience for good this time around, and made Vanadium Dark a better, tougher, sleeker book. It has done what any life-form needs to do.
I joined the line of metalheads at seven o’clock. It... | News | Coagulopath
I joined the line of metalheads at seven o’clock. It wound like a snake through the alleys connecting Pitt, George, and Central Street, heading toward Metro Theater.
I passed a red Carolla with red P-plates, which was stranded like an island in the surging metalhead river. The driver looked anxious. Learning how to drive in Sydney CBD sounds tough. He kept nudging forward and reverse, but lacked the courage to actually drive out of the crowd and get onto a road. He might still be there now: they should send a rescue team.
By the time I got inside, the first opener (Witchgrinder) had started playing. They were fun! A shame they weren’t listed on the bill.
The second opener was SOiL, or however you capitalize it. They’re a late-period nu metal band. For years, they seemed on the verge of Limp Bizkit-sized success, until suddenly nu metal was over and not even Limp Bizkit was enjoying Limp Bizkit-sized success. I’m surprised they’re still around. I mainly know their singer Ryan McCombs from his work with Drowning Pool.
The four members of SOiL looked eerily similar in the near-darkness of the theater, like the same man copy+pasted a few times at various points on the stage. McCombs complained of jetlag. Also, he was curious about Australian beer, so a fan in the front row held out a can of Victorian Bitters. McCombs kneeled and took a sip of it.
They played their Scars album in its entirely. The crowd stirred to life for “Breaking Me Down” and “Halo” but otherwise were waiting for the headliners: Static-X.
I have misgivings about this whole Static-X “memorial” project.
To explain the story, Static X is (or was) an industrial metal band, fronted by a former bartender called Wayne Static. He was the creative force of the band, writing nearly all the songs as well as crafting their sound, which he described as “evil disco”—a pummelling, communal thing that was very heavy and very catchy. For the genre lepidopterists among us, they were Ministry-style industrial metal fused with Prodigy-style big beat.
From 1999 to 2009, Static-X released six albums…and then something happened. We still don’t know exactly what.
It’s fairly uncontroversial that Wayne had a drug problem, and it was causing conflict between him and the other band members (drummer Nick Oshiro, guitarist Koiki Fukuda, and especially bassist Tony Campos, who was a fifty-percent owner of the band name). Eventually, this stress came to a head, and everyone needed a break.
Next came a classic “did Vince Neil quit or get fired from Motley Crue?” scenario, with different people saying different things. Wayne claimed the band actually broke up. Tony Campos claims the band went on hiatus…and that when Wayne announced that Static-X would reform with all new musicians, he was pissed and wanted financial compensation.
Wayne said that this compensation was financially onerous, forcing him to book tour upon tour, to the point where his body broke down (he suffered a hernia, which left him unable to perform). When Tony still demanded the money (even though Wayne couldn’t tour to raise it), he was forced to retire the Static-X name.
I don’t have the Static-X name anymore. I made a deal with Tonys [sic] the only legal Static-X member besides me.
I paid him a bunch of money last year to use the name, and he’s just a greedy motherfucker, man. He just hates me to death. He’s trying to gouge the shit out of me. I made him an offer to give him 25 percent of my net profits and he refused it.
He wants this outrageous number. [Laughs] He wants more money than I make in a year, and he’s just doing it on purpose because he hates me for whatever reason.
For the record, Tony says that the hernia story is largely bullshit, and that the tour was cancelled because Wayne was busted for drugs.
Drugs are indeed the touchy point of Static-X. Wayne claimed that he became drug-free after leaving the band. In 2011, he released a solo album called Pighammer, which was about his new, sober lifestyle. Lead single “Assassins of Youth” has lyrics like “I was too far gone / Couldn’t fight anymore / So I’m closing the door And I’m moving on.” It was promoted with statements such as:
Static’s first solo album – Pighammer – was a tribute to his new non-drug life and hoped it would help others to get clean from hard chemical drugs.
Three years later, he was dead from an overdose. Fourteen months after that, his widow committed suicide after a struggle with depression. Regardless of what happened, it was a tragic story: with horrible twist followed by horrible turn.
To be frank, I was a little discomforted to see the Static-X suddenly reform as a kind of tribute/memorial act. It was also weird to see Tony Campos project an image of a dead man up on the screen, and refer to him as a friend. Wayne certainly didn’t think they were friends, when he was alive.
But what about the show?
Edsel “Xer0” Dope performed Wayne’s vocal parts, and performed them well (I’ve heard rumors about backing tracks: but this might be one of the rare occasions when that’s acceptable). I liked his mask. Founding members Koichi Fukuda and Ken Jay were barely-visible molemen, hunched over inside their hoodies, while Tony Campos stomped around the stage with the fiery presence of a Hebrew golem.
They blasted through “Permanence”, “Structural Defect” (still my favorite Static-X song; it was an unexpected treat to hear this one live, although they cut out that fun synth part in the bridge), “Black & White” and basically every other Machine song except for “Shit in a Bag”, and “Burn to Burn”. This was supposed to be a twenty-year anniversary tour for 2001’s Machine, but coronavirus said “no”. Better late than never, I guess.
1999’s Wisconsin Death Trip was also heavily represented on the setlist. The devastating loud/quiet dynamics of “Love Dump” were fantastic live. We also got to hear deeper cuts like “Sweat of the Bud” which they hadn’t heavily played since 2000 or so. The evil disco onslaught was overwhelming, and we were so exhausted from constant pogoing and moshing that we had little energy left when “Push It” brought down the show.
The other four Static-X albums were basically skipped, which may have been the correct decision.
I never liked 2003’s Shadow Zone. It’s where Wayne started mixing Korn with his Ministry, with fairly annoying results. It has lots of clean nu metal style singing: not a great idea on the face of things, and particularly since Wayne couldn’t hold a note in a bucket. It also has songwriting by Tripp Eisen, who is a wretched human being. 2005’s Start a War wasn’t much better. The band just seemed to be running out of ideas. “Dirthouse” was a fairly alright tune, and they played that one live, along with perhaps two other songs from that period.
Then came 2007’s Cannibal and 2009’s Cult of Static, which barely sound like finished albums. The production is extremely thin and weak: it seems to be Wayne gung-hoing it himself in the mixing room. Which was a shame: those albums explored some interesting new sonic directions (“Stingwray” is a latter-day classic that nearly rivals “Structural Defect”). Pighammer had thicker production, but without any really good songs. At the Metro, they briefly played part of “Cannibal”, and didn’t touch anything else from Cult of Static. Pighammer wasn’t even hinted at.
The show had a ton of visual flair, with screens lit up by phantasmagoric CGI imagery. The colors matched the songs (blue for “Cold”, sickening pink for “Love Dump”). There were no encores—Static-X is a “play straight through, with no breaks” kind of band—but at the end Tony, Ken, and Koichi took a bow.
I got out at perhaps eleven, buying a band shirt. I misspelled that as “band shit.” It would be funny if the merch stand were literally selling Static-X’s fecal matter, arranged by color and consistency. Corn would cost extra. I’m tired. Nighty-night.
Are the books on the list bad? No. They’re good books.
“I read those books when I was twelve!” Good job, you read smarter books than Lex Fridman. Here’s your medal.
Yes, his “book a week” schedule seems both arbitary and divorced from certain realities about books (for example, that they differ in length). He’s assigning the same amount of time to The Little Prince (a 16,000 word children’s book) as he is to The Brothers Karazmazov (a 356,000 word Russian realist epic). But that’s his funeral.
And yes, it’s depressing to see a humble everyday pleasure like reading books get smeared in Silicon Valley thinkfluencer slime. “My videos will deliver key takeaways with itemized action points! Follow along as I synergize my mindspace and growth-hack my quantified self with the ultimate disruptive tech…books!”
…but none of those criticisms really connect with the larger issue.
This is a terrible way to read books.
Unweaving the Rainbow
When I was a teenager, I listened primarily to metal bands. Upon turning twenty, I decided I needed to educate myself in classic rock.
But I wanted to do it fast. The Rolling Stones have twenty-nine albums? Bugger off, I’m not listening to all that. Can’t I just pick a highlight or two? I wanted to speedrun classic rock!
I dutifully acquired/downloaded a dozen classic “ok, boomer” albums, as ranked by lists like Rolling Stone’sTop 500 albums, including:
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon
The Clash, London Calling
Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
Across one week, I listened to them all.
I got nothing out of it.
When an album finished, I could not recall a single note. These were classic, career-best albums, made by great artists (only some of whom are now suspected to have molested children)…yet they just bounced off my skull. I didn’t even dislike what I heard; I just instantly forgot about it. It was as though I’d created a dozen little black holes in my life, or induced a dozen bouts of waking amnesia.
I was obviously missing something very important. But what?
Eventually I realized that I hadn’t given myself any context to understand the music. I was basically trying to read an advanced foreign-language textbook, without taking the time to learn the language.
An album is not an album. It’s a record of the world the artist lived in. You can try to understand it on its own…but what if you took the time to understand the artist, and the things they were reacting to or pushing back against? You’re denying yourself part of the experience if you don’t.
If you stare at a painting long enough, you’ll eventually see the entire world bleeding through behind it.
The blue robes in Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato’s Madonna and Child would have produced awed shock once. Blue pigment – or ultramarine – was the rarest of colors, worth more than its weight in gold. It was derived from the precious gemstone lapis lazuli, which could only be found in a single mine in remote Afghanistan. Cleopatra used powdered lapis for eyeshadow. Tutankhamun’s mask was made from it. During the Renaissance, merchants would haul it overland (a journey that took sevearl months) before shipping it to Venice. Its piercing color and immense price made it both highly sought after and freighted with mystic significance. Vermeer bankrupted his family buying it. Some artists cheated by using cheap azurite, and then applying a single thin layer lapis lazuli. To a Renaissance painter, ultramarine was the equivalent of bringing out the big guns. “Playtime’s over, fuckers. We’re using blue.“
…all of that context vanishes when you try to speedrun your way to a cultural appreciation. You see a woman. You see a baby. You vaguely suspect it’s Jesus or something. Next.
Critical theorist Julia Kristeva said “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another”Kristeva, Julia. (1986). Word, dialogue, and the novel. She was talking specifically about intertextuality, but I think this is true of any meaning we take from art. They’re fragments of the world, refracted through the prism of an artist’s eyes and then into ours. They are not self-contained monadic artifacts, and it makes little sense to treat them as such.
We Could All Be Pierrots
When I listened to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as part of my exercise, it produced no emotional response.
But I didn’t know who he was: I didn’t know about the kid growing up in post-War Britain. First a mod, then a hippie, then a gay man. Spinning through wardrobes and identities, learning that “authenticity” is a mug’s game, that you can make a career out of being a well-heeled fake.
I didn’t know what came next. Glam rock. Success. Moving to America. Cocaine. Paranoia. Creating Station to Station, and nearly dying in the process. Moving to Berlin. Making three of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 70s. Reinventing himself again in the 80s, experiencing massive commercial success, along with an incredible collapse in artistic quality. Decades spent in the wilderness, before finally managing an inspiring comeback (Blackstar) before he died.
The narrative I’ve told you is heavily bullshit: partly a media confabulation by Bowie himself, and partly my own imagination. It ignores significant parts of Bowie’s discography (where does Diamond Dogs fit in the picture? What about Outside?), and distorts others (two of the fabled “Berlin” albums were actually recorded in other cities). But I finally had a Rosetta Stone. I could finally speak the language.
David Bowie is now my favorite musician. It didn’t happen because I listened to his best music. It happened because I listened to his worst.
Lex and Violence
I worry that Lex Fridman is falling into the exact same trap I did at twenty.
He’s shoving 52 unrelated books into his brain as fast as he can, like an RPG player grinding their third alt to level 55 in time to raid Molten Core. He’s getting none of the context in which they were written. None of the writer’s personal history. He treats books as a fungible commodity. 1 book = 1 learnin’. 52 books = 52 learnin’s.
I truly don’t believe you can speed-run a cultural education in this way.
Imagine Donald Trump decides, in his infinite wisdom, to climb every famous mountain the world. Everest. Kilimanjaro. Annapurna. But he doesn’t want to go through all the trouble of climbing mountains, so he just uses a helicopter to fly him to the peak. Then he steps out, takes some photos for TruthGabSocialGettr or wherever he’s on, and then has his pilot fly him to the next mountain.
We’d consider that a poor substitute for mountain-climbing. In fact, we wouldn’t consider that mountain-climbing at all.
You can’t just experience a thing just by standing at the peak. There’s also a landscape to explore. If you want to climb a mountain, you have to actually climb.
To be fair to Lex, I don’t know in what spirit he’s reading these books. He claims he’s taking notes. He says some of them (possibly the Dostoyevsky?) are re-reads of past favorites. So there’s probably some effort there. But it also feels like he’s treating reading like an RPG stat that can be minmaxed.
What should Lex do instead?
Here’s what I’d do:
I’d go for a depth-first search rather than a breadth-first. Systematically explore one world, and then exhaust it before moving on to another.
You could carve literature into different domains in all sorts of ways. Maybe do it by time. First, read ancient literature. Then the Greek classics. Then Medieval literature. Build an understanding, and then build things on top of that. Assemble a mental picture of the world one fragment at a time.
Or break the world into distinct domains. Western literature. Eastern literature. Try not to let them cross – you wouldn’t hop from Siddhartha to The Plague until you were ready.
Or you could trace the movement of literature by influences and connection points, following it from node to node. One of my favorite literary movements is decadence. It’s a fascinating genre, but a hard one to get into.
First: read some books in romanticism: the 18th century forerunner of decadence. Absorb their vibes (intense emotions, along with a stultified and didactic sense of morality), and you’d get an idea of the soil decadence came from. It has the same sensory intensity of feeling, but makes it perverted and insane and corrupt.
What next? The poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À Rebours, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then you’d read some later exercises in sensual perversion that verge on surrealism, like Guillame Apollionaire’s erotic work, or Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden.
“But that would take a lot of time!”
Yes, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Hobbies take time. The temptation to speed-run things is always there.
But if time is your chief constraint, why read the books at all? Why not just read their Wikipedia summaries of these books, and be done in an afternoon? I don’t know. I’m not the book police. Lex’s List is an improvement on not reading books at all.
You have to decide for yourself. Is there value in reading books or not…and if there is, why not read them properly?