synthetic zero

August 31st, 2009

Spent a lot of time cleaning this weekend… in the end it came down to a decision: move some storage cubes from one corner of the loft to another. Though this sounds simple, it took quite a bit of time with all the moving, reorganizing, putting stuff in the basement storage, buying some more storage cubes to pick up the excess, etc., but the result was a much bigger sense of openness, the loft really looks far more beautiful now, and this translates into a tremendously improved feeling, state of mind. Clean house, clean mind.

Making spaces for living is tremendously fulfilling to me; there’s something incredibly wonderful about living in a space you’ve designed. Reminds me of Heather Anne’s recent post about our physical living spaces:

Really, I’m making a mash of metaphor and reality here, but I do mean actual physical spaces. If you grew up in suburbia, think about the living room of your childhood. The layout of the kitchen. Your parents bedroom. The place where the washing machine lived… And I can’t help thinking of the place I live now and wondering whether we’ve succeeded in making something that reflects and reinforces the what’s good about each of us and what’s good about us together as a family.

But these accreted patterns of life, concretized into physical space, can disappear, suddenly, too, no matter how comfortable they may have become.

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August 29th, 2009

Silence as a message:














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August 27th, 2009

I am someone who rarely feels depressed; I tend to take up a position of preparing for the “worst case scenario” in my mind, no matter what, and because of this relatively pessimistic view of things, as life goes on, I find myself almost always pleasantly surprised at how things rarely end up as bad as in my imagination. But there are some things that are very difficult for me to handle; in particular, being cut off from someone I love or am close to. In my family, growing up, any conflict was always resolved through intensive interaction, conversation, discussion, which could get heated, but in the end was always based on mutual respect and willingness at all times to try to find a way to resolve issues in a way where everyone was satisfied. Paramount above all was the sense that, no matter what our disagreements, we were intensely connected, and so disagreements or disputes never became matters that could result in a real schism. This is a generally Japanese cultural trait — within the family there is great closeness, connectedness, communication, and a willingness and almost duty to be very direct and open with each other about anything, and a commitment to working things through, no matter what.

So I can handle almost anything when it comes to people I love or are close to me; if they want to reframe the relationship, that’s fine, if they want me to relate to them in a different way, I can deal with that. I am always preparing myself for the death of my loved ones, thinking I must appreciate them as much as possible in the here and now, so even death I am generally prepared for. But the thing that, emotionally, I can’t handle well is simply being totally cut off from people I was close with, be it an individual or a group, when they are still alive. That notion is terrifying to me on an emotional level, and gives me a feeling of utter despair, even a feeling of death. I can handle the falling apart of a particular form of a relationship, but being cut off entirely is extremely difficult for me, and that is a tremendous understatement.

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August 26th, 2009

A relatively new French philosopher, Quentin Meillassoux, has come on the scene and is making a bit of a splash by trying to salvage a heavily modified variant of realism from what he calls the “correlationist” philosophical schools. One of Meillassoux’s central arguments is that scientists talk about a past which predates the existence of subjects, and therefore one must infer that there is some “ancestral” being-reality which is prior to the arising of mind. I don’t believe this argument holds water, however. Meillassoux is assuming, it seems to me, in a naive way, the existence of a temporal structure to reality; and is therefore attributing a “prior” (in a philosophical sense) quality to events which occurred in the distant past, before minds arose. However, the assumption that the past ought to be viewed as somehow philosophically prior is assuming far too much, it’s bringing in naive physical theories of the world and giving them philosophical significance they do not deserve. Rather, it seems to me, one can just as easily view the so-called past as a retrogressive projection from present observation; a view of the past which is compatible with many interpretations of quantum mechanics, for example. There’s a conflation, in other words, between temporally prior and in some sense metaphysically or philosophically prior; but what is more properly, I think, prior to mind is only Being, but about this we cannot say anything specific. In quantum mechanics it’s possible to think of the past as only inferred from observation, i.e., in many interpretations, in some sense the past doesn’t objectively exist prior to or independent of an observer and of observation; colloquially one can say that the act of observation brings a particular past into existence for that observer, one which can be retrogressively projected back from inferences one can make from the observation. (I am here, merely sketching an argument, not attempting a full refutation of Meillassoux’s arguments with respect to time). The mere fact that one can talk about events “prior” to the arising of minds, in a temporal sense, in other words, doesn’t mean those events do not in a very real and physical sense depend upon their observation now, by minds today. Larval Subjects discusses some rejoinders by Meillassoux to some of the attacks from “correlationists” but I don’t believe these rejoinders work for the reasons I state above. You can see some more of my reasoning about time and physics appended here and I discuss further issues of interpretations of physics in my comments to this interesting post.

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August 24th, 2009

People often argue about dogma of the supra-mundane, as though denial of dogma means belief that our idea of the mundane is all there is. But denying dogma, strictly speaking, can actually mean being open to inconceivable vastness.

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August 22nd, 2009

I understand the reaction on the left to the potential demise of the so-called “public option”; the sentiment is it’s an unconscionable retreat and one which could dramatically reduce the government’s leverage in holding down ever-rising cost increases in health care in the future. We’ve all seen the statistics; the United States spends roughly twice as much on health care as every other industrialized nation; our spending has risen from 6 percent of GDP in 1960 to 16 percent now; we spend more on health care than on food. Despite this, our health care outcomes are, taken as a whole, mediocre; and while we do well in certain areas, such as cancer treatment, so do Canada, Japan, Australia, and France, all of which spend just over half what we do per capita on health care. Clearly, a single-payer system has the best potential to dramatically reduce health care costs in the long run.

But, as we’ve seen, single payer appears to face intense resistance in the United States, and even if it could pass, it might mean the demise of the Democratic majority in the next election. So, is the “public option” the next best thing, a way of keeping the private insurance companies honest? On the surface, it may seem so, but we should keep in mind that the public option that was being discussed was going to be highly restricted; it was going to be available to people without health insurance, but wasn’t going to be available to the vast majority of Americans.

A strong health care cooperative, however, could in fact compete openly for anyone’s health care dollars; if it operated on a national level, had a large enough position to be able to negotiate effectively, and was operated on a not-for-profit basis, it seems to me at least in theory it might actually be better than a “public option” with heavily limited eligibility (as has been discussed). Furthermore health care cooperatives would eliminate the main Republican talking point, giving them less political ammunition. I do believe a robust single-payer system with the possibility of optional, private supplemental insurance would be better than either, but a highly limited public option might actually be worse than a set of well-run health care cooperatives. Just a thought.

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August 21st, 2009

People often say this as though it were a universal truth: dreams are always fascinating to the person who is dreaming them, but boring to other people. I, however, have never felt that, at all. I love hearing other people’s dreams. They reveal a rich unconscious world that, to my mind, is in many ways more real than the stories people tell about their waking lives. I find them interesting intrinsically, interesting in what they say about the other person’s unconscious landscape, interesting in the ways in which they sometimes may open up tunnels to the collective unconscious, and interesting in that I find them intriguing source material to try to understand, to wrap my mind around, to uncover a deeper underground reality both in terms of my personal connection to the dreamer, in terms of my own understanding of my life and reality, and in terms of my appreciation of the world, the universe, that which connects us. All of which is to say: I won’t tell you my dreams, if you’re bored by them, but I’d love to hear yours.

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August 20th, 2009

Kat and I were walking around Portland in the Pearl District and I suddenly had this urge to have a pastry or something… so I looked it up on my iPhone and we headed towards one that sounded promising… Nuvrei Pastries. After a little wandering around we finally realized the wonderful smell was coming from the basement… we walked down there, followed by three other folks who were going the same way, but when I arrived at the door, the sign said they closed on Saturday at 2pm, and it was already close to 5. Still, there were people inside, so I peeked in and asked, “Are you open?” The guy said no, so I started to head back up the stairs, when he called after us that he might be able to help us anyway. We shuffled back inside and he proceeded to give us, for free, a whole pile of fresh pastries. While doing this, he asked us where we were from: “New York.” “DC.” He seemed pleased he had been able to demonstrate to hardened East Coast visitors how wonderful Portland could be. Kat and I took a lemon bread and a fruit pastry, and headed back outside. They were, suffice it to say, very, very good. Exactly what I’d been hoping for at that moment.

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August 20th, 2009

Katharine reminds me I vowed to write every day and I’m already four days behind.

What I really want to write about is a huge revelation Susan and I had in a recent conversation, the culmination of a long series of conversations about a difficult concept that we’ve been discussing relating to time, in which she realized that the whole problem, the reason she had been unable to grasp it until now, was that she was confusing the reference and the referent; it’s a problem she’s had all her life. It’s a very common problem, in fact — and as I was listening to her I realized it was the crux of many difficulties in human cognition, all the way up to and including political and social issues. However, to explain why this is would take volumes of writing which I don’t have time to do just now, but I will try to address this question slowly over the coming days and weeks.

Teasing apart these subtle distinctions in our lives is crucial, I believe; we often tend to take thoughts as the world, directly, not as a sort of effect which is related to, but not identical with, the world, by necessity, i.e., the map is not the territory, or as Borges beautifully put it:

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.

But while this observation appears obvious there are more subtle conflations; for example, one can think of a concept as something you understand, but you can also think of it as a kind of tool, a dynamic stance, i.e., not so much something to figure out as something to apply, almost like a lens, where the ostensible idea isn’t important for its conceptual content so much as a metaphor for an attitude one can actively apply to fresh situations.

The subtlety of the problem of reference reminds me of work done by the computer scientist-turned-philosopher Brian Cantwell Smith (I highly recommend his work), in particular he has done a lot of work on the problem of reference (for example, consider his paper on self-reference). He once wrote a computer language in which all the varieties of implicit reference, naming, etc., were made explicit; as he puts it in his bio:

Real-world computer systems involve extraordinarily complex issues of identity. Often, objects that for some purposes are best treated as unitary, single, or “one”, are for other purposes better distinguished, treated as several. Thus we have one program; but many copies. One procedure; many call sites. One call site; many executions. One product; many versions. One Web site; multiple servers. One url; several documents (also: several urls; one Web site). One file; several replicated copies (maybe synchronized). One function; several algorithms; myriad implementations. One variable; different values over time (as well as multiple variables; the same value). One login name; several users. And so on. Dealing with such identity questions is a recalcitrant issue that comes up in every corner of computing, from such relatively simple cases as Lisp’s distinction between eq and equal to the (in general) undecidable question of whether two procedures compute the same function. The aim of the Computational Ontology project is to focus on identity as a technical problem in its own right, and to develop a calculus of generalized object identity, one in which identity — the question of whether two entities are the same or different — is taken to be a dynamic and contextual matter of perspective, rather than a static or permanent fact about intrinsic structure.

I will say much more on the subject of reference/referent in the future, as well as explain Sue’s revelation (but that will take a lot more background which I’ll have to slowly supply).

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August 15th, 2009

Strange, being in Portland again after a long hiatus. I’m experiencing everything in terms of memory: how I used to feel when I walked down this street, or ate at this restaurant, etc. Portland always used to seem like a place where everything was at the beginning, but now I keep thinking of it in terms of what happened in the past.

I went to a somewhat disappointing show, Manor of Art, at Milepost 5 way out in the eastern part of Portland. My friend Tiffany Lee Brown is doing a cute Tarot reading installation; and there was some interesting work, like Arrington de Dionyso’s drawings, but overall the quality wasn’t up to the level of a lot of DIY group shows I used to go to in Portland when I lived here. I imagine it’s just this particular show, the nature of it… but I fear that perhaps the quality of work has declined in the city I love so much. I’m hoping it isn’t the latter. I mean I’ve been to other uneven shows in Portland before.

One odd coincidence, though, was on the plane here I happened to be sitting next to two artists who were in the show, who knew Tiffany from way back, and whose exhibit was across the hall from Tiffany’s. The world is a rather strange place sometimes.

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