Langton Labs

It was last fall, and I’d just accepted a new job in San Francisco. I needed a place to stay, but I hadn’t decided where I wanted to live in the city. I just needed a temporary place to crash, ideally staying with a friend in the city till I found a more permanent home. A friend connected me with one of the residents of a place called Langton Labs.


Street view of Langton Labs.

Langton Labs defies easy categorization. (The Wall Street Journal article about it, and the subculture, isn’t bad.)  I’ve seen it described as “an ongoing experiment in creating and living based out of a former sign factory South of Market in San Francisco.” Basically, it’s a warehouse that a creative, interesting group of people live in together. It’s a ‘coliving’ space: A kind of DIY intentional community. More than just a place to rent, it’s a place to interact and create and do new things. As a shared space for artistic or even professional endeavors, it redefines home in a very appealing way. It’s like a small tribe in a big box.

Lounge/living room near the entrance.

Lounge/living room near the entrance.

It’s a cool place. Most if not all the inhabitants are burners and some are involved in the Hexayurt Project. Langton manifests at Black Rock City as Phage. There are private rooms for permanent residences as well as extensive shared spaces. There’s a common kitchen and people tended to share meals together.

Upstairs loft. Connects to the kitchen via French doors on the right.

Upstairs loft. Connects to the kitchen via French doors on the right. A ladder goes down to the warehouse floor.

While I was there, guests would often come for brief stays, usually a few days. No one stayed for a whole month as I did, but I was welcome to stay that long. I wanted enough time to learn about San Francisco neighborhoods and a permanent place to live, a place flexible enough that I come and go as I liked and could move out with little warning. Langton was great for that.

Many, many bikes.

Many, many bikes.

It’s also pretty disorderly and messy. That’s part of the charm. There were a bunch of different projects going on, including the installation of a dance floor. I learned not to go barefoot… there tended to be lots of sharp broken things, heavy metal objects or tools lying around.

It was, um, a bit cluttered.

It was way cluttered. There were always projects in progress, such as the new dance floor (far back).

I lived out of my duffel bag. A bed was really all I needed then. It’s a fun place but definitely not private. I slept in the Sliding Door Room–a room with 4 bunk beds, no windows and one giant wall-sized door on tracks. The Door had been removed while the dance floor was under construction. (Yup–the dance floor is immediately adjacent to the guest sleeping area.)

I slept in a bunk in the Sliding Door Room.

I slept in a bunk in the Sliding Door Room.

It’s often loud at Langton, and at unpredictable times. There’s a lot of music and conversation at any time, day or night. There were frequent opportunities to meet, hang out and get to know new people. It’s very social, and interesting conversations were easy to get into. Since I had just started a new job, I had to keep regular hours so I learned to wear earplugs when I slept.


Painting the dance floor space.

The other side.

There’s another warehouse across the street that’s part of the same community, but I didn’t spend that much time there. In fact the intensity of the new job kept me from getting as involved in Langton as I would have liked to in the short time I had there. But I made a few friends there (including Abalone the cat) and still keep in touch. It was the best introduction to San Francisco I could have hoped for.



His Struggle

As a kind of study into the nature of evil, I’ve been reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It’s quite a read–and quite an experience to read, actually. At first I wondered: could I actually be persuaded by any of his arguments? I’ve even felt a mild urge to conceal reading it in public, in case someone were to think I admire this man. (Reading it on a Kindle helps.) Few, I think, would understand reading to see how someone could become so utterly, undeniably evil, and how such a person could rise to completely control a nation.

Adolf Hitler, before he decided to exterminate every Jew.

Adolf Hitler, before he decided to exterminate every Jew.

What I’ve discovered is the ideology of a man who never would have risen to power under ordinary circumstances. This book is the product of a creative, brilliant, highly educated mind utterly in the grip of the most extraordinary weltanschauung imaginable: a kind of industrialized, racialized, hypernationalism rooted in worship of pure will and strength; defined by the venemous hatred of an imagined, insidious enemy upon which all German problems could be blamed; and in which a totalitarian state governing every aspect of existence is the final cause of the German master race. A chilling vision.

The Nazi state Hitler was later to create is described in full detail. It is impossible to read this book without being completely aware of his intent to conquer the world, enslave all non-Aryans and murder every Jew. You’d have to be blind not to see it. The fact that he was elected democratically gives you an idea of how fucked up beyond belief the social fabric of the Weimar republic really was.

As I read, one recurring theme I’m noticing is his professed admiration of the Catholic Church. In developing his revolutionary ideology and effecting the political transformation it calls for, he recognizes the profound importance of “blind faith in the truth of a doctrine.” He says:

Here again the Catholic Church has a lesson to teach us. Though sometimes, and often quite unnecessarily, its dogmatic system is in conflict with… scientific discoveries, it is not disposed to sacrifice a syllable of its teachings. It has rightly recognized that its powers of resistance would be weakened by introducing greater or less doctrinal adaptations to meet the temporary conclusions of science… And thus it holds fast to its fixed and established dogmas which alone can give to the whole system the character of a faith. And that is the reason why it stands firmer today than ever before.

He is completely wrong. Enduring, dogmatic Catholic opposition to the basic truths of the world has put the Church so out of touch with reality that it continues to be abandoned by ever larger numbers. Secular atheism, agnosticism and even religious indifference have never been more prevalent in so-called Catholic countries. The decline was well in progress in his time. “Firmer today than ever before”? No wonder the glorious thousand-year Third Reich lasted hardly a decade.

The beliefs that endure are not the ones most ardently believed. It is not a question of will. The ones that endure are the ones that continue to work for the believer. Had Hitler really understood Peircean pragmatism, rather than a vulgarized form of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as he seems to have, maybe he would have seen what a pointless, insane struggle he had chosen for himself.

Some Reflections Since the SF Move

As I smoked a cigar out on the porch of my loft, I sat and watched the sun set over Portrero Hill and I experienced a rare pleasure. Since I moved to San Francisco and joined Zinio, I have been on a nearly constant tear. Virtually every waking moment I race from one meeting to the next. Many are very urgent and decisive to the future of the business, and I try to contribute and give direction, opinions and support to the very best of my ability.

The pace at Zinio is borderline maniacal. Every single day I am double-booked for several meetings, sometimes triple-booked. Once, even quadruple-booked. Meetings are created, moved and cancelled so rapidly that I can only keep up by checking my calendar on my phone. Sometimes during meetings I write emails in the odd minute or two while my undivided attention is momentarily not required. Sometimes I need to work out things with people over Skype chat while in an unrelated meeting. And text on my phone about yet another subject simultaneously.

There is so much to do. There is simply not enough time. How utterly different things were at Semantic, which moves at a relatively glacial pace. As much as I love the adrenaline rush at Zinio, tonight I have precious time to myself, and I treasure it.

This evening, I got to enjoy an entire hour where I had no problems to solve. No chores to do. No novel challenges to my intellect and mental bandwidth. An entire hour where I wasn’t racing somewhere on foot, already running late. (I’ve damaged and destroyed two pair of shoes since I moved here just months ago.) Where I wasn’t working out. Wolfing down a lunch in 8 minutes, or less.

My mind is sharper and quicker than it was. I can think faster, I can juggle more, and I can do more in less time. One strange but welcome development is that I’ve finally developed a native sense of left and right. My entire life, I’ve had to make an “L” with my left hand every time I needed to know which was which. Now I simply know. I can only guess how this came to be, but I think it’s because of all the navigating through San Francisco on foot.

I watched birds cross the blue sky this evening. I saw the golden sunlight reflected off the towers in Soma close to Market. The Financial District (where Zinio’s office is) is higher energy than Soma and thick with people. The weekday pace is phenomenal, and business moves fast. People actually walk faster there than Soma. Not that it’s slow here. An entire building has sprouted here from a 40-foot pit to 2 storeys above street level, just since I arrived.

Since I made the move I have had precious little time to reflect. I used to spend enormous amounts of time reasoning through the depths of my perception of the world, through philosophic journeys to the very foundations of what is knowable. But that is necessarily slow, very careful and considered work, as crucial as I have found it to my life. Much like I imagine exploring a deep, vast cave would be. But the mental challenge now is much, much more exciting. This is a high-velocity race against time, trying to be as savvy and forward looking as I can be in just moments of time. Trying to see every possible advantage and opportunity to leverage, yet every pitfall to avoid, every form of chaos to deflect from my teams. And tolerating serious incompleteness of tasks and the occasional high-speed debacle. And I find I am having enormous fun, and I think doing very well. Better every day.

2012 was an awful year for me. This year has been incredible so far. I feel very fortunate to be here and in this circumstance. I really owe so much to my good friend Mario, who was instrumental in opening this door for me. The irony of him working for me now is so damn funny to me, but I have mad respect for his brilliance and talent, not to mention his innate decency. I am grateful and owe him so much.

I miss San Diego the most when I think of my closest friends. But I don’t regret the move at all. I love it here. I love the loft, which every day is more settled, every day is more my home. Sitting out on the porch, smoking that cigar, is part of my growing comfort and familiarity with this amazing new world.

2012: The Year in Review

The year draws to a close… the end is near! I find this is a fitting time for an annual retrospective. It’s been quite a year for me.

The year began with me unemployed and preparing for a future as a cognitive scientist at UCSD. I wasn’t able to make a go of it, but that’s hardly the end of my work in that space. I gave a talk at the BIL 2012 conference on cognition, technology and their role in nature. With this post, I sparked a Gödel, Escher, Bach revival on Reddit ultimately involving thousands of people reading that beautiful book about the mind. And I made a little progress on my own book which delves into the themes of my BIL talk in far greater depth… though not as much progress as I’d like.

With a little help from a good friend, I landed a very challenging and rewarding job as Director of Engineering at Zinio, a cool little mobile app company in San Francisco. It’s early yet, but think I’m doing well there leading the teams developing their core systems and platforms. It’s been so intense and engrossing that I’ve had no time to blog since October.

Working there has made it possible for me to realize an old dream of mine: to make a life for myself in San Francisco. And to embark on a new life adventure with Heather. My first phase was to live for a month as a guest at Langton Labs, a warehouse collective of burners in Soma. That was a neat experience, and since then I’ve leased a beautiful loft in the same neighborhood, just a 20 minute walk from my office in the Financial District.

I reached new heights in creativity both as an artist and an engineer. I became a maker. I joined a makerspace and went to Maker Faire. I took classes and taught myself a great deal. In addition to electronics and physical computing, I now know the basics of welding, blowtorch soldering and woodworking. I organized, led and funded the crew that made the Firefly lounge that appeared at the San Diego Decom (as well as my going away/birthday party). I built a collapsible outdoor camping/party bar from scratch, which I then gifted to some good friends of mine. I also performed on stage at the Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball.

It’s been a good year for me online. I blogged more actively than ever before, and I think at a much improved quality compared to earlier posts. As a research project, I gained true skill in social networking, growing from a few hundred followers–mostly on Facebook–in January to nearly 50,000 today, across a score of networks all over the world (largely on Google+ and Twitter). The traffic to this blog is magnitudes of order greater than it was, and I’m gratified to have a growing population of subscribers. It’s nice to feel appreciated. I was also interviewed by a writer for the Huffington Post.

What else? I made, renewed and deepened many friendships. There were plenty of parties and lots of good times. I went to Mammoth twice–once over Superbowl weekend–and I’m getting into snowboarding more and more. I learned how to pick locks and how to roast a great turkey. I dyed my hair blue. (Really.)

Of course, there were deep losses and disappointments too. Far worse than the UCSD rejection, my grandmother died. I found being out of work mostly joyless, lonely and miserable. Much of the year was a very anxious, depressing time and I was in a kind of chronic, low-boil existential crisis with no end in sight. Even so, I got tremendous support from my friends, family, and especially Heather and I made it through that darkness. For whatever reason, the best times of my life have always come right after the worst. A lot of wonderful things came to pass, and it seems that despite all presumptions to the contrary, the year 2012 ends very well.

And speaking of endings, this will be the last post for 2012, and I’d like to wrap it up on the right note. May 2013 bring us a more peaceful and prosperous world. May wonderful challenges and experiences eclipse drudgery, failure and cynical apathy. May ignorance, destructive folly and hellish suffering continue to decline in the face of awareness, reason and goodwill. We can have it all if we really want it. Merry Christmas, and have a Happy, Amazing, Incredible New Year.