synthetic zero

January 30th, 2009

Susanna was telling me today that she was really struck by how much of a shift it is that Obama is a president from or close to our generation. I’ve been remarking on that, too; friends of mine talk about Obama as though he were someone they knew personally. I notice people wondering what it “must be like” for Obama to be doing this or that Presidential activity for the first time; and I have to admit, I have the same thoughts. Oh, it must be cool to live right upstairs from where you work, or what must it be like to sit in the Oval Office?  I don’t remember thinking this about any previous President.

But there’s more to this change, I think, than just being able to relate to the President — it’s a shift to a new, post-partisan, pragmatic way of thinking about the world. To some, this may remind them of the DNC’s style of triangulation politics — but I believe it’s actually a much more interesting, radical change in policy thinking, one which is long overdue, and one which, I believe, does represent a current in thinking in our generation which is less ideological but not merely an averaging of opinions from the left and the right.  To the contrary, the idea is to recognize that any given principle is just one aspect of a multidimensional reality that must be respected in all its complexity.  Rather than attempt to achieve ideological purity (the market is infallible! the market is the root of all evil!), one looks at the situation and sees context — in certain contexts (trying to find a reasonable short-term price equilibrium) the market is better, faster, more flexible than the government, yet in other contexts (looking out for longer-term concerns, the environment, damping down market bubbles, looking out for fraud and abuse), the government is indispensable.  It’s not a politics of just one side or the other, nor is it simply a bland averaging of political views — rather, it’s a recognition that the political spectrum encodes principles which all must be taken into account, depending on context.  For example, on the use of the military: yes, we can and should fight to defend ourselves against those who are trying to kill us; but at the same time, we should do so while remaining true to our principles, without torture, while also attempting to negotiate whenever possible.

It all sounds so obvious, and so sensible, and most of my peers think this way naturally.  Yet for so long this sort of multifaceted, principled, but also sophisticated thinking has been absent from mainstream political discourse; even those who were themselves quite intelligent (say, Bill Clinton) found it necessary to dumb down their public image and message.  Obama does this much less than any national politician we’ve seen in a long time; and he does more than this, he tried to elevate the discourse whenever he can, through rousing rhetoric which is nevertheless frequently far more sophisticated than we’ve been exposed to in recent decades.

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January 25th, 2009

Words cannot express the anger I feel about this story:

Pope Benedict XVI, reaching out to the far-right of the Roman Catholic Church, revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops on Saturday, including one whose comments denying the Holocaust have provoked outrage.

You know, I have great respect for the contemplative tradition in most religions, and the Catholic Church is no exception; they’ve produced or been associated with great mystics, both historically and recently, including the wonderful Thomas Merton, the keenly insightful and brilliant Simone Weil, and many others in their long history. But one has to wonder, at times, if this is because of or in spite of the Church itself. There are so many things wrong with the Catholic Church as an institution that it’s hard to know where to begin; perusing the Vatican website is an exercise in reading some of the worst, most ill-informed, and clueless theological and spiritual writings ever conceived by man. Time and again they replace true contemplative insight (which they supposedly revere in saints such as Teresa of Avila, though I can only conclude the vast majority of the officials in the Church have no idea, literally no concept whatsoever, what many of the saints they supposedly revere experienced or understood) with theology which substitutes muddled dogmatic thinking and outright horrific error for true contemplative insight. The inference one can draw from this is they believe that following rules and subscribing to “beliefs” without any basis can be a stand in for meditation, contemplation, and surrender, something which is not only wrong but horribly misguided and harmful to the world. Of course, they’re not alone among the world religions in making this mistake, but they have a certain arrogance, a false majesty projected by their feudal institutions and hierarchy, all the way up to the office of the Pope, which has all sorts of royal pomp surrounding it, even though the current occupant of that chair is perhaps one of the worst in a long time, though the office has a famously dark past, people who have either presided over or actively encouraged corruption. As an institution, its failings have not, as we all know, only been restricted to history, but they’ve continued even into modern times.

I was discussing all of this with a friend of mine a while ago, and she pointed out that, “at least they excommunicated the Holocaust denier” — and I had to give her that. Though the Church as an institution (and note that I am describing the acts of the institution, not the religion per se, though the religion makes great efforts to imply the two are one and the same, which is itself a crime) has had a very dark ancient as well as recent past, there have been positive things too — in addition to many blameless saints and mystics, who I referenced above, there were institutional advances, such as Vatican II. But with this move, Ratzinger has made a gesture which symbolically validates not only that Holocaust denier (in itself the worst aspect of this move) but the worst aspects of intolerance and dogma.

Dogma is the bane of spiritual life. It is not only a risk to spirituality and contemplation in any religion — it is the origin of religious and ethnic hatred, wars, oppression, and death. Sure, one has to live with a certain degree of dogma in any culture and society — it’s a natural and inevitable response, an attempt to replace the mystery and majesty of the universe with something people can grasp more concretely: bureaucracy. I don’t begrudge those who decide they must, for their own reasons, subscribe to some sort of dogma, but the arrogance of someone like Ratzinger, who is clearly someone who lacks any deep spiritual insight whatever, in not only promoting but elevating through the dint of his office, under the color of authority and the gilded majesty of the papal seat, in pushing for the rehabilitation of the least spiritually aware, the most damaging ideas, including but not limited to Holocaust denial… it’s simply disgusting. There are few things I get truly angry about, but abuse of authority is one of them. Ratzinger exhibits an unearned contempt for true understanding, he is using the position of his office to promote a narrow, rigid, and impoverished spirituality, to give it legitimacy; yet he has not earned the right. In Buddhism ignorance is a sin, but even worse is ignorance masquerading as authority and spread out over the world under its rubric … it’s hard to imagine a worse crime in terms of its long-term negative historical impact.

Meanwhile … in other awful news, the BBC has decided not to broadcast a charity appeal from notoriously controversial organizations such as Save the Children, Oxfam, and the Red Cross to aid Gaza. It’s hard to fathom such a bizarre and unconscionable refusal; they claim it is to preserve their “appearance of impartiality,” as though helping international aid organizations to relieve civilian suffering in Gaza is anything but a simple matter of human compassion. It’s one thing to want to be even-handed, but is the BBC so afraid of being critical, even indirectly, of Israel, that they cannot bring themselves to allow non-political aid organizations to advertise for help to support victims who no one, not even Israel’s supporters in this war, would argue are at fault for their own suffering?

As a meta comment: I was thinking a bit about the twin nature of my outrage for the day … on the one hand, outraged that a Holocaust denier, among others, was being rehabilitated by one of the most venal Popes in decades, if not centuries, and on the other, outraged that the BBC would attempt to thwart humanitarian organizations from helping victims of a military onslaught by Israel. My outrage is on both sides of the political divide when it comes to Israel and Jewish history, at least, but then again I have always found that the things I find the most disgusting, the most horrific, can be found on every side of nearly every political, ethinic, cultural, and religious boundary. Victims and the victimized can be found everywhere, committed by every group. Yet people tend to be rather one-sided in their ethical concern; they may rage against the “enemy” but not themselves, or sometimes vice-versa; but why not resist, loudly and strongly, crimes whether they’re committed by your side or the other side … crimes are crimes regardless of what side you’re on. I don’t believe, that at any given point in history, of course, that crimes are necessarily equally distributed — integrated over the long haul, however, one can find even the most virtuous nations, organizations, and individuals committing acts of thoughtlessness, oppression, all the way up to genocide and worse, and we, as human beings, ought to be prepared to see it in humans, including ourselves, regardless of where they happen to be on one side or the other of a geographical, political, ethnic, or religious boundary.

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January 23rd, 2009

Henry Miller’s writing always seems balanced between the twin chasms of the profane and of grace.  But however he may have appeared, he was, in fact, simply a master. From Sexus:

To be sick, to be neurotic, if you like, is to ask for guarantees. The neurotic is the flounder that lies on the bed of the river, securely settled in the mud, waiting to be speared. For him death is the only certainty, and the dread of that grim certainty immobilizes him in a living death far more horrible than the one he imagines but knows nothing about.

The way of life is towards fulfillment, however, wherever it may lead. To restore a human being to the current of life means not only to impart self-confidence but also an abiding faith in the processes of life. A man who has confidence in himself must have confidence in others, confidence in the fitness and Tightness of the universe. When a man is thus anchored he ceases to worry about the fitness of things, about the behavior of his fellow-men, about right and wrong and justice and injustice. If his roots are in the current of life he will float on the surface like a lotus and he will blossom and give forth fruit. He will draw his nourishment from above and below; he will send his roots down deeper and deeper, fearing neither the depths nor the heights. The life that’s in him will manifest itself in growth, and growth is an endless, eternal process. He will not be afraid of withering, because decay and death are part of growth. As a seed he began and as a seed he will return. Beginnings and endings are only partial steps in the eternal process. The process is everything… the way… the Tao.

The way of life! A grand expression. Like saying Truth. There is nothing beyond it… it is all.

…. For every height that is gained new and more baffling dangers menace us. The coward is often buried beneath the very wall against which he huddled in fear and anguish. The finest coat of mail can be penetrated by a skillful thrust. The greatest armadas are eventually sunk; Maginot lines are always circumvented. The Trojan horse is always waiting to be trotted out. Where then does security lie? What protection can you invent that has not already been thought of? It is hopeless to think of security; there is none. The man who looks for security, even in the mind, is like a man who would chop off his limbs in order to have artificial ones which will give him no pain or trouble.

In the insect world is where we see the defense system par excellence. In the gregarious life of the animal world we see another kind of defense system. By comparison the human being seems a helpless creature. In the sense that he lives a more exposed life he is. But this ability to expose himself to every risk is precisely his strength. A god would have no recognizable defenses whatever. He would be one with life, moving in all dimensions freely.

Fear, hydra-headed fear, which is rampant in all of us, is a hang-over from lower forms of life. We are straddling two worlds, the one from which we have emerged and the one towards which we are heading. That is the deepest meaning of the word human, that we are a link, a bridge, a promise.

… For some it is a terrifying prospect. It would be better, think they, if Heaven were above and Hell below— anywhere outside, but not within. But that comfort has been knocked from under us. There are no places to go to, either for reward or punishment. The place is always here and now, in your own person and according to your own fancy…. You are the author, director and actor all in one: the drama is always going to be your own life, not some one else’s. A beautiful, terrible, ineluctable drama, like a suit made of your own skin. Would you want it otherwise? Could you invent a better drama?

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January 19th, 2009

At each moment, I say to myself, suppose I were at the end of my life, and I were transported back to this moment, to be able to live my life again.  I’m here, new, the first moment of my second chance.  What do I do with it?

We always think of ourselves as at the end of a long history which we imagine is trapping us, defining us and our world; our mistakes, our successes. But if we thought of this moment as a fresh beginning, rather than the end of a history of events, we would see there are vast possibilities in our present moment now. We don’t have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. If we had a second chance, we could do anything, we have the whole wide world in front of us… would we just repeat our past patterns or joyously start fresh?

There’s no reason why, as adults, we have to restrict ourselves to our habits, our knee-jerk reactions, our comfort zone. We can start over, every fresh new moment, with all our knowledge and experience, but not constrained by it but simply informed by it. Simple yet it’s hard to even notice we’re treating our lives as a great big experiment in repetition and not paying attention.

Not paying attention, because: if we really were paying attention, we wouldn’t jump to conclusions quite so readily, we wouldn’t be so sure our story was true, was fact, was set in stone. We would be a little more open to the possibility that we don’t, in fact, know what our world is, what we are doing, and the limits of our world. If we had a moment to look at things new, with a little more doubt, we could see infinite spaces open up in between our judgements and thoughts, and perhaps we’d have a chance to flex ourselves in directions we didn’t even conceive of before.

The same goes for listening, reading, thinking … when we listen to something we’ve heard before, when we read something we’ve read before, or something like it, we tend not to actually think about it again, fresh, re-checking it, but instead we consult our memory and replace the fresh experience of the idea(s) with a memory of having encountered the thought before. We take the memory placeholder as a stand-in for the idea. But this is useless and harmful, for a number of reasons: the memory is itself embedded in habits and contexts which are no longer nearly as relevant now, by doing this, we fail to refresh and re-check the idea, so that it can be expanded beyond the confines of how it worked for us in the past, and we also deprive ourselves of the advantage of putting our minds through the process of thinking about the idea afresh, which is always the best way to “remember” anything — not by remembering it, but by recreating it from scratch. Don’t take that retread: the “memory” of an idea, which is mere propaganda.  Every idea has a vast new possibility of application with each moment; evolution, expansion, even refutation. An idea, repeated, can be a gateway to a new insight, even if we’ve heard it or read it or thought it a thousand times before, by re-thinking it, recreating it as though we’d never heard it before. It’s only then we have the chance to see new dimensions of it, and to reapply it to our ever-changing and always unique presence with the world.

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January 16th, 2009

When the Space Shuttle broke up on re-entry back on February 1, 2003, Camille Paglia said, in an interview:

As we speak, I have a terrible sense of foreboding, because last weekend a stunning omen occurred in this country. Anyone who thinks symbolically had to be shocked by the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, disintegrating in the air and strewing its parts and human remains over Texas — the president’s home state! So many times in antiquity, the emperors of Persia or other proud empires went to the oracles to ask for advice about going to war. Roman generals summoned soothsayers to read the entrails before a battle. If there was ever a sign for a president and his administration to rethink what they’re doing, this was it.

I disagree with Paglia on many issues, but here I think she may have been onto something.  The world does seem to be structured in a strange way, where, more frequently than seems reasonable to expect, what one might think of as random or unrelated occurrences seem to have a potent symbolic significance.  Of course, this could just be our overactive symbolic imagination putting meaning onto the meaningless, but I am not entirely convinced of that.  The world may well have a hidden internal symbolic structure that connects seemingly unrelated events in a tapestry of meaning that goes beyond mere projection.  In any event, I had a strange sense of recognition when I read the news of the plane non-crash yesterday, perhaps the inverse of the 2003 shuttle disaster that Paglia thought could well have been a bad omen for the Iraq war.  The plane was going down, it looked to be a major disaster, yet everyone got out alive.

Here’s to hoping Obama and his team get us all out of this alive.

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January 16th, 2009

Slightly edited version of an email I wrote to my friend Rajesh Kasturirangan, who had just given a fascinating talk at the Kira Institute (he and I have been participants in various Kira projects over the years, both prior to and recently in its current virtual reality incarnation) in Second Life on the subject of virtual reality, in which he likened it to the telescope before Galileo.  I can’t easily summarize his intriguing talk but a couple of salient points: he compared VR and various modes of contemplative exploration, including dreaming; he also compared it to the telescope prior to Galileo, noting the fact that one of the most interesting things Galileo did was not only pointing his telescope towards the heavens (when it had been used primarily as a utilitarian tool before), but discovering moons orbiting Jupiter, proving that there was another heavenly body around which revolved other heavenly bodies, fundamentally calling into question the geocentric view of the world — literally decentering our universe.  Finally, Rajesh posed the question: could virtual reality become a means by which we discover the unknown, by which we can decenter our world, and take us beyond the utilitarian and the social?

Hi Rajesh,

Indeed, I found your talk quite interesting, and it sparked a number of thoughts in various directions.  I discussed these with Sue and we had further thoughts … I’m also eager to discuss with my collaborator Heather Anne Halpert when she returns from her vacation to Peru, etc.  (I’m cc’ing some friends who might be interested in some of this discussion).

Heather Anne and I have been discussing the peculiar phenomenon of perception, in which we, as human beings, seem to have evolved the ability to construct pictures of the world, quite elaborate pictures, which include vast hidden assumptions, some of which are new and some of which seem to be somewhat hard-wired and quite inapt, and these pictures have two peculiar qualities: one is their relative rigidity, and the other is the fact that they seem to disappear.

That is to say, they disappear because we are unaware of them *as* pictures; they seem to be just “the world as it is.”

Among the strange properties of these pictures are what I discussed at my Kira talk a while back.  That is, we tend to assume that changing one thing in a system won’t change anything else in the system; we tend to assume that the effects of a cause will be immediately apparent and right in front of our faces; we tend to assume that large-scale feedback loops do not exist.

On a more general point that touches on the dreaming point you also raised in your talk, which Sue mentioned when I was discussing with her, dreaming and virtual reality both potentially share the possibility of presenting to us an experiential version of the idea that there may be multiple ways of taking the world — in other words, perhaps the decentering possibility provided by virtual reality along the lines of the Galilean discovery of Jupiter’s moons is one of a decentering of paradigms or pictures of the world.  Experientially, perhaps virtual reality can create the possibility of decentering our perception, our perspective, to the point where we realize *our waking reality is also a construct*.  A la The Matrix (which is, of course, a movie which relies on the notion of virtual reality very heavily).

What can we uncover with this realization?  It’s not only the fact that there can be other ways of taking the world, but that these other ways can have very physical, very tangible consequences, that is to say, there is the vast unknown (unconscious, that which is beyond our conscious self as we take it ordinarily) and it can have consequences, it is connected.  One aspect of this is becoming aware of aspects of the world which we are involved in directly but which we tend to ignore; as noted in The Logic of Failure, which I referenced in my talk, which is very salient to the issues Heather Anne and I have been thinking about.

Another aspect of all this, contemplative realization is this quality of “newness”.  Again it comes back to seeing things fresh. When you have a contemplative realization, even if it is something you already felt you “knew” somehow, or even if it is the same as a realization you had before, it always has, as Sue put it, the quality of newness or freshness to it.  This is perhaps also something that can be explored through the dreamlike reality of VR.  Seeing the world fresh by decentering one’s world view, one can also make everything old new again (fresh perspectives).

What Heather Anne and I have specifically been working on is the idea of visualizing these extra-conscious aspects of the world, reality, even our own bodies and lives.  We’ve been thinking more along the lines of providing information visualization tools, but VR opens up the possibility of experiential learning, because of the immersive quality of virtual reality.  Having a visceral experience in a virtual world can perhaps have a bigger impact on our consciousness than seeing a beautiful graph of a pattern in nature or in our bodies or lives.  VR-based simulations can perhaps open up the possibility of confronting aspects of reality which we ordinarily miss.  This comes back around to Piet’s interest in simulations, as well: perhaps a sufficiently complex simulation can be somewhat “out of control” — outside of conscious, explicit control, because even though we may write the rules of the simulation the simulation itself may surprise us.  Then VR becomes a way of hooking our ordinary way of perceiving (our evolved perceptual mechanisms) and experimenting with multiple modes and experiences so we can then train ourselves to shift awareness from what we are used to thinking about (our entrenched oversimplified paradigms) to decentered paradigms (which remain fresh) and to connect our visceral, experiential awareness to patterns outside our normal awareness.  VR systems could be a way of bridging that evolutionary gap (again, see The Logic of Failure for more elaboration of this idea).


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January 10th, 2009

“On Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges, from A Universal History of Infamy:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

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January 10th, 2009

So, recently, I got an iPhone — bought it because I’m thinking of doing some software development for it, and with the maturation of the App Store and the 3G network it felt like it was finally time.  The application that particularly interests me right now, however, is eReader — an ebook reader for the iPhone.  I had an ebook reader for my previous PDA phone, of course, but I found the interface to be rather hard to deal with; the resolution of the display made reading on the device rather annoying.  The iPhone is still a relatively small device for reading, but the resolution is twice what my old phone had, and for the first time I find myself able to read ebooks comfortably.  It’s a kind of a revolution; suddenly, thousands of books are now available to me instantly, over the air, and I can download them and read them at my leisure, carry as many around with me as I wish, at the same time, all inside the phone I’m already carrying anyway.  My parents happened to have a copy of the Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia, which is entertaining and fascinating as most of Oliver Sacks’ books are (one gets the feeling, of course, that his writing isn’t so much genius as it is clear and edifying — there’s a certain fascination, however, with the individual cases he chronicles, aside from any overarching theme he may be trying to lay out.)  In any event, I just read a bit of it over the holidays, and I wanted to read the rest, so I installed eReader and found, to my delight, the book was in fact available, as are quite a few titles new and old. The iPhone is much more convenient than the bulky Kindle; for my purposes, it’s ideal.

Meanwhile, I got a Roku box — there are thousands of titles available from Netflix which you can stream instantly to the Roku in reasonably high quality — they even have a small number of HD titles as well.  The box will soon support other download vendors, also, such as Amazon, and others, in the future.  Netflix’s “instant” selection tends to be less popular films or older releases — however, this means there are a large number of art house films, foreign films, and classics available, all for a flat rate subscription.  I have to say this has also been a huge shift; to suddenly have access to so many classic movies, foreign films, art films, etc… instantly, essentially, it’s a tremendous shift in our ability to gain convenient access to these cultural treasures.

In a strange way, I feel as though I’ve been waiting for this era of online media delivery all my life; it feels natural to me, not at all strange.  Some friends of mine have a strong attachment to paper books and other physical media, but for me, it’s always been the ephemeral information networks which seemed the more logical means of delivery for books and films — yet, it always seemed not quite ready before. I actually think this shift will generally be salutary — the fact that visual culture is so limited on the cable and satellite networks and books have been competing with online content, and losing — this could mean people may find things they might otherwise overlook.  I’ve already watched a number of films I probably would have missed otherwise.

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January 4th, 2009

Just saw the opera (in HD on TV) about J Robert Oppenheimer called Doctor Atomic, libretto by the remarkable Peter Sellars, composed by John Adams. The opera was exceptionally moving; I have to admit I was in tears at the end.  The story is very poignant to me, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I was a physics major in college, and my uncle was a nuclear physicist, so the subject of the responsibility of physicists has always been very much an issue close to me, growing up, but even more so because my father was a child at the time, living in a suburb of Hiroshima called Itsukaichi; he lived just over the hill from where the atomic bomb was dropped; his aunt and uncle were killed in the blast.  His brother, my uncle, the one who later became a physicist, went into the city the day after the bomb dropped — much later he died of cancer, possibly caused by his early exposure to radiation in the aftermath of the bomb blast.

The part of the story which has always fascinated me, however, was the story of the designers of the bomb, and the semi-tragic tale of Oppenheimer himself; the opera captures this event in vivid fashion, taking many of its lines from declassified documents verbatim, as well as poetry Oppenheimer happened to be reading at the time. By all accounts, Oppenheimer was himself a political progressive, but the subject of the ethics of what he and the other brilliant physicists at Los Alamos were doing did not significantly deter him, until the moment of the Trinity test when he famously thought to himself lines from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” After the bomb was dropped on Japan, and the vivid reports of the civilian casualties came in, Oppenheimer came to realize the extent of what he had done; he reportedly confessed to Truman that he and all the physicists involved in the project had “blood on their hands.” Later, when there was a push to develop the hydrogen fusion bomb, he tried to slow the project, for which we was rewarded by being summarily banished from government service, something he reportedly never recovered from.

What really struck me, however, while I was watching this, was this extremely strong and vivid realization that the opera was not merely a representation of what happened, of the event, but was in some sense the event itself. That is to say, this opera would not have come into existence without the actual events that occurred, and in a very vivid sense. There is always a mediated quality to perception of anything; even if you were physically present during those times, what you get is just one slice of what happened; the presentation of the events in this opera is another perception of those same, real, events. Particularly as presented by artists of this caliber, it gives you a vivid connection to something real that occurred, that has a mysterious resonance and solemnity even though it is “just” a performance. It’s not just a performance, it is the thing itself, right now; the past is present.

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