A Tenuous Chain Broken (reprise)


So it’s been a few years. As of now, Jon Ronson’s released his book “The Psychopath Test” and I’m mentioned in the first chapter. How…crazy? Yes, I think so; I’m not sure yet what’s said about me, but I’m honored all the same to have been mentioned in print. A lot has happened since then; I’ve left the US and am on a trip around the world, my vehicle being ESL teaching. I haven’t forgotten about this episode, but I have put it aside for some time now. In this post, I’d like to revisit it and add a little, and explain the story the way it now appears in my memory. Some parts may sound redundant, but if you haven’t read my original account this will explain things and hopefully entertain you as well.


The Book

A Tenuous Chain (original post)

Muriloq’s Blog

Ask.Metafilter thread

Buy “The Psychopath Test”

A Tenuous Chain Broken (reprise)

Today my name appeared in a book published by an English journalist. Its name is “The Psychopath Test”. Where I am now, in Extremadura, Spain, it’s of course not available (think “Kansas of Spain”) and I haven’t even seen it. How did this happen? Who am I to have been included in a book like this?

In the spring of 2008, late in my Junior year of university, I recall wasting a morning playing Call of Duty 4 when my roommate Kevin returned home from class with a box under his arm. The box was clean and unlabeled and as he set it on the coffee table I asked about it. He’d found it, he explained, beneath the viaduct at Indiana and 14th.

“Just…sitting there?”

“Yeah, no one was around I just picked it up and here it is,” he said, opening his Burger King. “Should we open it?”

At that moment my boxcutter bit into the packing tape and in seconds I’d produced the contents: a lightweight white packet which must have consumed that roll of tape. This too got the knife and therein I found seven books; rather, seven copies of a thin little book with a white cover bearing the name “Joe K” below an image of Escher’s “Drawing Hands”. Kevin raised his eyebrows and I spread the books on the table.

Inside the cover was a tri-folded letter which I hoped would include an address. Clearly this wasn’t delivered poorly without some cost to the sender.

“Dear Professor Hofstadter,” it began. I knew the name; somewhere subconsciously it had been swimming, and seeing it in print set it to echoing in my head. Where had I heard this name before? It seemed to me then that as I read it aloud to Kevin that the tone was at once cautionary and apologetic. I rose from it imagining the writer having driven himself to exhaustion over each line and having not slept, chose to send the draft I held. Who was this Hofstadter, and why would someone bother to send him seven books?

The first couple pages of the book told of a pair of fellows attempting a contest put forth in a magazine. The aim: to write Arthur Conan Doyle’s missing novel, The Giant Rat of Sumatra. I would recount the story, but it’s spelled out here if you’d like to read it. Let it suffice to say the little story’s full of symbols and could-be arcane meaning and I was left afterward thinking it was an amateurish vehicle to deliver an obscure philosophical payload. The pages following were devoted to a motto and an axiom, and then several pages of quotes from famous thinkers and indeed, “Joe K” quotes himself, too, his self-referencing being of a puffed-up nature and perhaps to the psychologically average person, sufficiently inane to inspire regret at its reading. Finally, the reader finds a sort of creation myth which closes the book. Seven pages of “on the first day”-this, and “on the second day”-that, wherein continues the first-person perspective, by which the author sets himself up as both God and narrator (were we so bold as to offer a biblical comparison).

“Guy’s a little nutty,” said Kevin behind a mouthful of Whopper.

“Or something,” I replied.

I brought the laptop over and found that Douglas Richard Hofstadter was faculty at IU, in the Cognitive Science department. That was IT! One of my very good friends was an undergrad in this department and had spoken the name before. Yes, yes! I’d also seen Professor Hofstadter give a talk on the Internet somewhere too, and I remembered that he’d shared the stage with Richard Dawkins, I think, or Steven Hawking. I discovered he’d won a Pulitzer Prize for Gödel, Escher, Bach in 1980 and was regarded as one of the fathers of the relatively new field of Cog. Sci.

I was nervous writing him. The books must’ve been meant for him, right?  A couple days later I visited his home with the package in tow. I met a girl on his front walk and asked her which of the houses was his and she kindly led me up to his door (which happened to be her destination, also). We entered together and I was asked in a French accent to wait by the door. This is where something strange happens; in the version of events I recall as I told the story to my friend Andrew a week after the event, there were several other French women in the house, enough at least for me to mark it in my still-adolescent mind not as important, but *impressive*. Professor Hofstadter, I’d learn later, didn’t share my point of view; according to him, his daughter and her French tutor were the only females present at his home that day. I will come back to this point momentarily; meanwhile, know that in the end I apologized to him.

Now, around this time I was freshly broken apart from a girl I’d spent two years dating. I was heartbroken of course, and in a weak attempt to salvage a mutual friend, I rang (his name is Andrew) and asked if I might stop by. He’d just acquired some new video filters, so we sat down in his basement bedroom and recorded this story. The result was a psychedelic, with swirling colors and effects patched together, as I saw a couple of days later when it appeared on Google Video.

I was invited to dinner at my friend D’s house, and there I let her and her girlfriend have at BoN. We ate supper seated on decorative cushions at a low table, with Chinese paper lamps strung overhead, and they thumbed through the book. Their reaction was revulsion and amazement; of such strength came their “what the fuck”s that I felt compelled to gift the book to them, or D in particular. They were to leave soon for summer work with The Radical Faeries, work akin to WWOOFing but at a different crop, the payment being $5k worth of harvest come the end of summer.

I left their house that night and didn’t think of the book for a year. They indeed did go west to work but argued such that D left in the middle of the summer, empty handed, and it was only after I helped her move out of that house that we thought of the book. It was lost.


Roughly a year later, Andrew popped me on Gchat. We had drifted apart a bit and he asked if I remembered the story of the book. He sent me two links that I “had to see”. They were:

I read through these threads in awe. So many other people had come into contact with the book, and all of them had received it, mostly via university mailboxes. They were professionals from a field of pertinent disciplines: theologists, psychologists, computer scientists, cognitive scientists, doctors, physicists, and others from neighboring fields. Overall, like good academics, they were more concerned with understanding the machinery which delivered the book to them rather than its contents. Then I saw a peculiar post. The user asked if anyone had seen a certain psychedelic frat-boy video on the subject, and then linked to it.

Wow, how embarrassing to see myself then. Perhaps I’m less of an ass these days…anyway, I posted in these threads and linked to a story I’d written on the subject (NOTE: it’s vital to this story that you read the older version, as details included there are omitted here; my viewpoint has changed significantly since then). Immediately some folks (Naming them now would be useless and low) speculated that due to my proximity to Hofstadter and by virtue that I’d not received but found my copy of the book that I was “in on it”. Later I would learn that those speculators were acquainted with the originator of this phenomenon and were simply inflating the mystery manually to prolong its life. They made simple anagrams of my name:

Levi Shand = Evil Hands, Live Hands

They commented on my blog a bit, and continued to speculate. Not long after this revelation, Mr. Ronson also commented on some of my blog posts and asked whether I’d mind an interview. I discovered that he’d written The Men Who Stare at Goats, whose film rights had recently been purchased by George Clooney (or so I understand), and other books all tugging at the frayed threads along the frontier of normalcy. We spoke on a stateside morning or an English afternoon, if you please. In classic journalistic style he dug at the aforementioned rumor, which told me no doubt he’d been in contact with its proliferator(s). He informed me that Professor Hofstadter had corroborated my innocence on all but one count: there were NOT, he said, so many exotic women in his house during my visit. Hot shame flashed up my body; how could I have been so careless? Was this true? It hadn’t occurred to me that I could have misperceived a scene so grossly and what gall to have been so public in my misinforming…later I would, of my own volition, type an apologetic message to Professor Hofstadter, to which he would reply with warm thanks. Meanwhile, I searched for meaning in the book, propelled by a naive gesture I’d made to Ronson  to “help if I could”.

I read the Conan Doyle story in which the Giant Rat is mentioned and found no clues. Of course I’d already read The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and it only loosely aligned with the BoN‘s message. The Glass Bead Game remains one of my favorite books, and I wouldn’t have picked it up so soon had it not been so blatantly referenced during this whole episode. Joe K, for example, is a direct reference to Joseph Knecht, The Glass Bead Game‘s main character. I also read the forward and first chapter of Göedel, Escher, Bach and it was there where I found the answer I’d sought. Most interesting to me was the concept of fugues, for I was led naturally to superimpose that concept over this employment of the core concept of the field of memetics and dreamed up the following idea:

Being or Nothingness is a memetic vehicle, or a burr. Its spines are designed to collect a certain demographic of person, the catch being that these people previously haven’t shared acquaintance in any way consciously known to them. In this way, disparate cousins are united via a common event, thereby raising a fugue of minds across the globe. Outside of this link, each one might have, years on, died unaware of the others.

My issue with the experiment is rooted here. Once you have the united attention of a restless audience, what do you want to tell them and how would you ever gauge whatever it is that you’d like to measure? This remains a mystery to me and tells me only that my hypothesis was only partly correct at best. Nevertheless, over time I again let the book slide into obscurity in my mind until one day I received a cryptic message from its suspected author: “The need has been fulfilled.” By then I understood the message to mean that his experiment had ended, with no word toward its success. I asked whether my hypothesis had been close and he replied yes, that I was one of the few who had understood what was happening. There’s no way to know how to take this information now; in light of The Psychopath Test it feels congratulatory while seeking my response to lauding. At the time, I instinctively patted myself on the back and the author kindly invited me, were I to find myself in that part of Europe, to visit he and his wife in Göteborg.

A short time later a message appeared in an old inbox from Professor Hofstadter. He asked as proxy whether I minded if Mr. Ronson quoted in his forthcoming book from messages between the he (Hofstadter) and I. My interest then was that Mr. Ronson not be further hindered in his plan, at least not from my end; understanding that I’d acted immaturely, I agreed and asked only that he characterize my actions rather than my person. The disgrace was mine and I prefer to own it publicly, as publicly as I aired it. In this way, I’d like to leave behind the boy who so casually spoke out of his depth and stride on through taller grasses.

…which brings us to the present. The book is published and it is done. While I’ve yet to read it I’m eager to and am happy to move forward to the next bit, whatever it is. This story has been a hit with everyone I’ve told it to (most notably an FBI agent in an Irish bar in Denver, who only revealed his occupation as I was stumbling away afterward). Now that it’s all down on paper, I feel I can move on. I’ve moved on from my country, as well, and am living happily in Spain (for the time being). This place is home to a little strangeness but nothing quite like the Story of the Book. I’ll remain open-minded and expect more in kind in time.


Private Castalia

I imagined him once (or is it her?) a year ago, a half a year ago, whichever, when things were less evolved than they are today, steeped in Hesse’s concept and discovering in an apartment moist with human anxiety a way to emulate the concept in reality. Being or Nothingness he would call it, an homage to his decision to overstep Aquinas’ final dilemma by using the very symbology the latter rejected (language) to a suitable, if not dramatic, end: an event shared between disparate personages, effigies themselves of Hesse’s Castalia. Each one would become a node, lit (in what sequence, or does it matter?) and accepting connection from others via the internet, in essence raising an intranet of individuals, a new network, but for what reason? Do we look to Hesse’s message or do we accept BoN‘s message, which recasts Hesse’s in mystical tenor? Taking “Joe K” as his nom de plume he raised more questions among his chosen intellectual aristocracy than he proposed to answer.

Initially I heaped scorn on the writer; what a hack, what a crackpot to be dumping loads of currency into such a narrow, futile self-publication and forcing it upon professionals buried in responsibilities of their own; how uncouth. The available threads on the topic ring similarly, with posters admitting to reception of the book but setting it aside, or else reading through it once and banishing it in favor of the elements in their lives which clearly carry water: their research, teaching, personal projects, or perhaps a balanced equation of these which secures them (in the most sovereign sense of the word). Fine! People have to eat and be happy; let them. None of his Castalians seemed to have the time to examine his content, either. Instead, in perfect academic fashion they worried themselves over how and why, with a little where thrown in for sufficient rigor.

How did he find me? How did he go about manufacturing these little books? Why was I chosen? Why wasn’t I chosen? Where did they ship from? Where did they land? Admittedly, I found myself wondering these things at first, but I am no scientist. I deeply respect the method and it’s ceaseless chipping away at humanity’s ailments, but my way, that of ignorance and lizard-brained passion, denies me the luxury of that brand of patience. I gave up the questions which assailed periphery concerns and instead decided to address the thing itself, or in this case the symbol of the thing itself.

Thing is, I’m his mistake, and wouldn’t mind too much being dry spot on his ankle. Here goes.

The book, to me, is at once a blowgun dart and a net, a prick on the neck and the fiber optics of a global electricity. In each salvo that goes out, a new set of professionals is awoken to its existence. If the poison works at quarter strength, they go online looking for answers and find the Metafilter thread, Murilo’s Blog, the Google repository, and all my garbage. They’ll reach a comfortable level of confusion and leave it at that. Should a susceptible person be struck while in the proper attitude, the poison works at 75% and they are given to following the narrative over the course of years and are actively concerned with “what will happen next”. They post on the threads, etc. They take the whole thing personally and react as if directly addressed. These types are nearly what our Joe K is looking for.

I haven’t come across anyone who’s shown signs of being wholly infected, outside of myself. Probably my unfathomable naiveté is behind it; I strongly suspect ignorance of the world is it, or else some other flaw in perception. I see the book as a call to action, as if someone has nominated himself “fisherman” and is seeking something I cannot comprehend. I’m having trouble with this because the GBG theories are perforated too well for my liking. The Game itself, as I understand it, is a contest run over a given period of time where participants must connect intellectual concepts in graceful fashion, the most artful/desirable/well-wrought of which is decidedly named winner. If BoN is to be taken as a real-world manifestation, an allegory to the Glass Bead Game, the mystery to be solved really is in distribution, at least for now. It’s like he’s asking, “who will play with me?” This admission begs another compound question: are we to take the sections of the book as pieces to be connected or are we to look at who these recipients are, how they identify as people and in turn how they manifest as living symbols for their work? Is this book a divining rod for polymaths, or is it trying to create one using Frankenstein parts?

My initial work was to seek out the works cited in BoN and study each of them in terms of the latter and try to come to some conclusion based on all of that. I’ve done a little, and am bored with it. What interests me more than any of the junk in the book is that I’ve shared an experience in common with people all over the world I never would have otherwise. A constellation has been erected, but of what? A fugue of voices is assembled, but what is the theme? Receiving? Surprise? It’s true that all of them could be considered Castalians in a way, but I can also see all of them as symbols to be connected. Hesse doesn’t seem to honor his characters that way, but then again his version of the academy didn’t seem to promote the specialization that today’s does.

If the author is attempting to connect a cast of people as a Glass Bead Game player would connect a host of concepts, he has failed. He has only served thus far to tap successful folks working in related fields (some more closely than others, but the fact remains that we’re dealing with relative personnel homogeneity in terms of the <ahem> roomful of classical thinkers) and unless relationships have developed which I’m not aware of, this experiment feels ill-conceived. Is a polymath the golden nugget here? Is that why the fascination with Douglas Hofstadter? Is he really a polymath? Does one exist in any of the sciences? If so, are they an academician?

A part of me wants to believe the message has something to do with everything we write and work on being chaff compared to The Great Wheel, or God, or Collective Consciousness, Allah, Science; whatever you want to call that thing in which you have faith. The only mathematics I have to reinforce this theory is that of Fractal Geometry and its inherent self-similarity as explained by Benoit Mandelbrot. I believe that this knowledge is what Thomas Aquinas, Aldous Huxley, and other psychonauts have discovered through various methods of accessing other consciousness.

I don’t know, people. The books are still coming in sputtering waves, unchanged from the first set that went out a couple years ago. I wasn’t supposed to get any, but instead found a box of seven copies seemingly representing a break in the distribution chain. You all know who you are and what you do. It might be fun if someone could set up a sort of role-call, a free social networking site for recipients of the book so that we can readily see who’s received it, what their field is, where they fall on a global map, etc. I am not the person to make this happen, but someone among the recipients ought to be decent enough at programming or web stuff to be able to put a network together. A support group! Ha!

Well I’ll keep thinking, I suppose. I don’t believe I’m anywhere near the truth of the thing but probably am giving someone a good belly laugh. Cheers to that. 🙂

Dirt Spade

And so I endeavor, from the beginning, to examine the book. I hesitate to approach the actual content from a literal angle, but these are avenues I feel ought to be exhausted before the hairier metaphorical and allegorical aspects feel scrutiny. Also, this approach aligns more closely with an academic background in letters, so here I go. I hope to explore the texts cited in Being or Nothingness and those at one level of remove from The Book, if they should appear to me.


The Giant Rat of Sumatra

I’ve isolated the Conan Doyle short story in which is written the phrase from the book. The Cliff’s Notes version is that it’s a classic mystery of mistaken intent. It opens with a wrecked man visiting Holmes. This Ferguson explains the scenario: His friend’s wife, a Peruvian woman, has been caught drinking blood through a wound her infant’s neck. Holmes arrives on the scene, noting the appearance of a crippled dog. The husband has a teenaged son from an earlier marriage, Jacky (also crippled) and a maid. His wife is locked in her rooms, away from the infant. She has also been accused of beating the shit out of the crippled kid. What a lady!

Holmes notices South American weapons on the wall in the child’s room and does his perception magic. Turns out the crippled kid’s been popping the infant with blowgun darts, but not before he tested the juice on the dog. Mom knew the kid was doing it and would spend time sucking the poison out of the infant and couldn’t tell her husband because she knew knowing would crush him. Jacky it prescribed a year at sea for being a homicidal jerk. We resolve cleanly.

What do we know?

  • At the core of the narrative circumstance surrounding the Rat’s citing is a visual illusion: a woman appears to be guilty of vampirism.
  • Holmes, exasperated, complains early on that he and Watson are leaping into a Grimm’s tale.
  • The culprit is a vitriolic teenager, jealous and fearless.

Illusion seems to be, given the content on the first page of BoN, the theme of focal import here; are things as they seem? I’m interested in the nature of misdirection here.

The only Grimm’s Fairy Tale which includes rats, specifically, (that I’ve found) is their Pied Piper story. One day, a single man comes to town dressed in strange clothes and leaves later that day with a horde of rats following him. The town doesn’t thank him, or offer him payment. Angry, he returns dressed as a hunter and plays his flute again, this time attracting the town’s children. They follow him out of town into a mountain cave and aren’t heard from again. Bastard!

So. A man comes to town and pipes. *yawn*

There are twelve short stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the parent collection which houses The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. It is the fifth story of twelve. The end of BoN depicts B discovering the 13th book after suffering an aneuryism (or something near), effectively tying up the narrative beginning on the first two pages.

Other works referencing the Giant Rat can be found within the Wikipedia entry.


Further, this method echoes Hofstadter’s concept of fugues applied metaphorically to other things. He writes, in Gödel, Escher, Bach:

A fugue is like a canon, in that it is usually based on one theme which gets played in different voices and different keys, and occasionally at different speeds or upside down or backwards. However, the notion of a fugue is much less rigid than that of canon, and consequently it allows for more emotional and artistic expression. The telltale sign of a fugue is the the way it begins: with a single voice singing its theme. When it is done, then a second voice enters, either five scale-notes up, or four down. Meanwhile, the first voice goes on, singing the “countersubject”: a secondary theme, chosen to provide rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic contrasts to the subject. Each of the voices enters in turn, singing the theme, often to the accompaniment of the countersubject in some other voice, with the remaining voices doing whatever fanciful things entered the composer’s mind. When all the voices have “arrived”, then there are no rules. There are, to be sure, standard kinds of things to do – but not so standard that one can merely compose a fugue by formula.

And so let BoN work as the theme, and all of these accompanying texts, let them be the other voices. We’ll rough it, and then trim it down to a manageable number, like six or eight. All of that later. I’ll be reading happily on.

Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

Kevin’s Story

Today Kevin and I visited the spot where he found the original, unmarked BOX of books. It turns out a couple details of my story were incorrect:

  1. The white packaging wrapping the books was clean because it hadn’t been removed from its box. I hadn’t recalled a box, but Kevin claims it was a box he found.
  2. He seems to think there were more than five books in the box; more like ten. I could be wrong about the number of books that we found. It could have been ten. Whether it was five or ten, the fact remains that Kevin discovered the box unlabeled beneath that viaduct, intact and dry.

By “intuition”, he means “premonition”, and by “Hostetler”, he means “Hofstadter”.

To clarify: I am not the architect of this little mystery. I haven’t the funding or drive for the experiment, and being untrained in the galaxy of fields the others represent I am not capable of capturing many of the subtleties within the text. I am, however, interested in helping solve the mystery and have taken that side of the project on in my spare time. I’m also intensely interested in the social consequence of shared experience. The first-draft ending of my story:

An Earth of people flashed into my mind, one side of the planet recursively informing the other. I was connected in that moment to people I would never have had cause to meet, as they were to each other and me. Our loop girdled the planet and now, in dropping my note, I’d created a somewhat local loop, the book being the pebble in the social pond. A car passed by my window traveling East, contradicted shortly thereafter by westward pedestrians.

Had the car crashed into the telephone pole on the corner, or lost a hubcap, I would have been connected to that man, his wife, and their dog as we could all be counted as witnesses to the event; as it stood, the car passing wasn’t a shared experience, really, and we’d not be connected on that level, at least not yet. Had we shared the experience, we’d seem as riders on ripples, rolling outward in our lives away from an event which at the time may have made us neighbors, or even acquaintances.”

So: who is dropping stones into our pond?

(      (     (    (   (  ( ((o)) )  )   )    )     )      )

Distribution Theory?

Several of the others  have articles searchable on ResearchGATE, a pond shared with Norfeldt. A simple bot program could mine for names based on keywords and produce a recipient list. Using names and their respective keywords, the same program could return university shipping addresses through a public search engine without much trouble.

Just speculation. Will check back Re: content.

The Book

these images c/o CheshireCat @ metafilter