synthetic zero

August 31st, 2010

In the online Buddhism conference I host, John Lehet wrote about his recent retreat experience:

This was “warrior’s assembly,” at Karme Choling. It’s a Shambhala thing, though it’s where the Vajrayana Buddhadharma starts to come in for real. All in all it was the most amazing 10 days I’ve ever spent.

I had a “realization” somewhat early in the program that transformed my experience altogether.

I was sitting and things were feeling pretty hard. It was hard in so many ways. But then a while later while I was sitting, it was easy. The contrast struck me, so I paid attention. What was easier? What had been so hard? And it hit me, sort of like those gestalt pictures — two black faces — no a white vase — no two faces; pick the way you want to see it, and you can see it that way, the vase or the faces.

From the perspective of Me, myself, I, conceptual thought, expectations, comfort orientation, agenda, plans — from that perspective the program was excruciatingly difficult. Two black faces. But from the gestalt of openness, flexibility, open mind, open heart, letting go — from that perspective it was very very easy. The white vase. So from that point on I was able to pick the white vase much of the time, though of course sometimes the two black faces picked me. This is very clear on a meditation cushion in a long program, but I think it turns out to be exactly the same as normal life. The same gestalts apply, to the same effects.

This is of course old news, but somehow it hit me in a bigger way.

I think both in contemplative/meditative practice and in life (they’re not really separated), there are obviously always these two alternatives; two different ways of working with our experience and our lives. But I think what really strikes me about John’s realization isn’t just that he was able to choose the white vase most of the time, but that his realization essentially consisted of seeing the faces and the vase at the same time. What’s really liberating isn’t escaping into heaven, but seeing heaven and hell simuiltaneously, two aspects of the same reality, both always already present. Liberation doesn’t come from escaping hell but from going beyond the division of heaven and hell in a way which encompasses both in pure presence which is always already present.

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August 20th, 2010

Just got back from watching the new Todd Solondz film, Life During Wartime, an intense, brilliantly written, shot, and acted film, a meditation on the meaning of crime and forgiveness, a message to the audience, us, to wake up in our lives, to our lives, how we’re living right here and now, to face the grim reality that we are living in a time of war, even if that war seems far away and disconnected from our moment to moment existence. The characters exist in a world of crazy, caricatured extremes of psychosexual violence and fear, and yet the film isn’t so much about that as it is, in my view, about present awareness, appreciating the people and contexts and the hidden aspects of our lives. The film unfolds in a Tarantino-like fashion, beautifully crafted self-contained vignettes, though the violence isn’t physical but psychological, and each vignette is tightly written and directed with a moment to moment quiet power that is darkly hilarious, mildly disturbing, and viscerally thrilling.

But, strangely, one of the things which I started to think about, somewhat tangentially, after watching the film, while having a conversation with Kat and Susan about the film, was the old East Coast vs West Coast divergence; or really more the DC-New York Northeastern culture corridor, and how it diverges greatly from the culture of the West Coast, and by that I mean the entire West Coast, from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland to Seattle. And I was thinking about how, while there’s neurosis and depression and heartbreak and psychological abuse and horror in both regions of the country, there’s something just a bit less dark and entrenched and doomed-feeling about life in the West. Of course, at the same time there’s an artistic and intellectual culture in the Northeast which is vibrant and alive, but I’m not speaking so much about that as I am about the respective “success” cultures in these two regions of our country.

The totems of success in the two regions (again, not including the artistic/intellectual world) really are very different. In the West Coast, of course being a doctor or a lawyer or an MBA or an investment banker are certainly respectable careers, but in no way are they thought to be particularly glamorous or exciting; they’re seen, for the most part, as nice ways to make a decent living, the sort of ordinary, kind of boring life one might choose if you want to live in a place like Palos Verdes (a bland upper-middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles). Sure, it’s nice to live in Palos Verdes. Big houses. But it doesn’t have a hint of glamour or excitement. The desirable careers on the West Coast include being a filmmaker, a web developer, an entrepreneur, an actor, a producer, a writer; even being an engineer or a mountain climber or a yoga instructor or a restaurateur is in many ways seen to be far more exciting than being a corporate attorney or a banker. There’s just no “juice” in those careers, they are invisible, they’re not colorful or interesting, they’re not the things people on the West Coast really dream about becoming. There’s certainly nothing wrong with those careers, they’re perfectly fine, obviously you can make a good living doing them, but they just don’t have much cachet in the West.

But here in the Northeast, while artists and intellectuals are celebrated and admired, for good reason, there’s also considerable glam in any career that just makes a lot of money. Corporate law, investment banking, etc., are not the bland career choices they appear to be on the West Coast, they’re some of the ways one is supposed to be able to achieve true success, life satisfaction, and public validation. Yet it seems as though those achievements are primarily measured here in terms of how much money one makes doing them, more than whether the activity itself is either intrinsically satisfying or how much it contributes to society. It is as though the mere ability to consume is itself seen to be somehow a measure of the value of the activity, a notion which seems simply weird and quixotic to my West Coast sensibilities. This idea, it seems to me, diverts far too many people towards professions which aren’t that interesting (I mean, of course, for some people the law can be a satisfying and interesting profession, for those with a particular interest in it, but I’m speaking of the droves of people drawn to it primarily because it generates income) and which may really not be the best allocation of the brightest minds, so to speak. Valuing mere ability to consume as opposed to ability to produce is to my mind a backwards set of priorities, and generates both grossly inefficient allocation of resources and much less personal happiness all around (and please don’t tell me that investment bankers are actually producing as much value as they consume — maybe some who directly invest in companies do, to some degree, but the more abstract it gets, the less about creating it is. Casino owners don’t produce much value other than perhaps mildly amusing entertainment — investment bankers engaging in abstruse derivatives trades aren’t even creating that. Perhaps they’re providing a bit of value in terms of additional liquidity but this generated value is hardly in proportion to the amount of money they rake off the top of the economy.)

Yes, to some degree I’m being a snob here, and I realize that, naturally, there are some fantastic things to be said about Northeast culture. I live here, I went to school here, my parents lived in Greenwich Village in the 60’s, there’s tons I can say that is great about this place. But when it comes to this issue: the worshiping of the ability to consume, it strikes me as just as pointless and doomed as the competition on Easter Island to build bigger and bigger statues: the worshiping of something that is both meaningless and ultimately barren, leading to the weakening and the potential downfall of the civilization. It’s time to shift the culture to admiring things that actually make a difference, building things, making things, creating things. It is happening here, of course, already, and it is a trend I hope only accelerates (as I noted in another post).

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August 18th, 2010

Peter Merholz recently linked to Pharyngula’s takedown of Ray Kurzweil:

Kurzweil knows nothing about how the brain works. It’s design is not encoded in the genome: what’s in the genome is a collection of molecular tools wrapped up in bits of conditional logic, the regulatory part of the genome, that makes cells responsive to interactions with a complex environment. The brain unfolds during development, by means of essential cell:cell interactions, of which we understand only a tiny fraction. The end result is a brain that is much, much more than simply the sum of the nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. He has to simulate all of development from his codebase in order to generate a brain simulator, and he isn’t even aware of the magnitude of that problem.

Kurzweil may well be wrong, but he’s not stupid (well, if he’s stupid he’s not as stupid as the above would make him seem): he’s not making an argument about simulating gene expression, but a totally separate argument based on Kolmogorov complexity, that is to say, what is the shortest algorithm you can use to reproduce the behavior. Simulating gene expression is a problem which everyone knows is incredibly hard, and may be impossible in general, as it requires the running of exponentially complex quantum field calculations — but that’s really not what Kurzweil has in mind here. He’s saying that an upper bound of the Kolmogorov complexity would have to be the genetic information required to generate the brain. Obviously he’s not saying that in 10 years we would literally build a gene expression simulator that could take the genome and generate a functioning brain. If classical processes can be used to simulate gene expression, then Kurzweil would certainly be right, at least in principle: the genetic information would be an upper bound of the minimum size of the algorithm needed to simulate the brain, regardless of which algorithm you use (and obviously Kurzweil imagines you’d probably use very different algorithms than nature uses).

He may be wrong, however, just because the generation of the brain may rely on quantum field effects which might allow for compression beyond that which a classical computer is capable of (i.e., it’s known that biological systems can take advantage of quantum effects, for example, a recent paper showed that plants take advantage of quantum computation). Quantum computers are of course capable of computational feats that would defy a classical computer, so his estimate could end up being wrong for that reason.

And even if he is correct, he may be grossly underestimating how long it might take for human beings to build algorithms with sufficient “compression” to generate brain-like behavior. But my main point is that most of Pharyngula’s blog post is beside the point, interesting as it is, because it attacks an argument Kurzweil is not making; i.e., the post is conflating algorithmic complexity with the difficulty of simulating gene expression, two totally different things.

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August 13th, 2010

In recent columns in the NY Times Russ Douthat makes strained attempts to find some rational justification for a prohibition against gay marriage:

The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not. (And I do mean all straight relationships. Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does. Similarly, even two eighty-nine-year-old straights, falling in love in the nursing home, will be following relational patterns — and carrying baggage, no doubt, after eighty-nine years of heterosexual life! — laid down by the male-female reproductive difference.) This interplay’s existence is what makes it possible to generalize about the particular challenges of heterosexual relationships, and their particular promise as well. And the fact that this interplay determines how and when and whether the vast majority of new human beings come into the world is what makes it possible to argue — not necessarily convincingly, but at least plausibly! — that both state and society have a stronger interest in the mating rituals of heterosexuals than in those of gays and lesbians.

There are so many obvious logical holes in this argument it’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, the most salient: in what possible way would granting marriage rights to homosexual couples affect, even in the slightest, how the marriage institution impacts heterosexuals, our “mating” behavior, the way in which we decide or don’t decide to reproduce, etc.? I cannot see, in any sense, how gay men and lesbians marrying would have even in the slightest affected my own decisions regarding sex, marriage, and having children. Can Douthat be seriously suggesting that his own marriage and/or sexual or reproductive choices would have been influenced by the fact that gay men or lesbians were getting married as well? All he seems to be saying is that the existence of marriage as an institution has an effect on reproductive habits (which is obviously true), and that this only applies to heterosexual couples (which is obviously false - see below - but even if it true, would be irrelevant), but regardless, it is still obvious that extending marriage rights to homosexuals could not possibly, in any way, affect the behavior of heterosexuals. So where’s the compelling state interest here?

Of course it also falls flat because homosexual couples can choose to reproduce as well, and/or adopt. They might do so via any number of means, including surrogate mothers/fathers, sperm donation, egg donation, etc. A gay couple might get a sister or brother to donate an egg or sperm. Furthermore, extensive research indicates that children of homosexual parents grow up to be perfectly healthy. So the argument falls flat here as well (though again, it wouldn’t matter even if it didn’t).

Finally, Douthat ignores the fact that marriage confers many state benefits which have nothing to do with children, but have everything to do with recognizing the fact that a loving couple has created a long-term bond. Marriage provides tax benefits both at the state and Federal level; it affects probate/inheritance rights, visitation rights, workers’ compensation, medical benefits, legal testimony issues, property ownership, etc., all of which are linked to the notion of a long-term, committed relationship, and have no obvious relation to Douthat’s irrational argument with respect to procreation. There’s clearly no compelling state interest to discriminate, whatsoever, and many strong reasons to believe this discrimination subjects a group of citizens to second-class status based solely on irrational grounds.

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August 4th, 2010

Adgrok writes in “New York will always be a tech backwater“:

Every yuppie I knew in New York worked as either a Wall Street guy, a lawyer, or an agent of some sort. Basically, there were all subtly screwing someone else for a living.

As an academic exile, my passport to this foreign world was my then live-in girlfriend, an embodiment of her socioeconomic cohort: Bryn Mawr School for Girls, followed by Harvard, followed by med school. This was a person who could open the Sunday Styles weddings section2, instantly identify a half-dozen couples, and rattle off the juicy gossip dating back to their time at Eliot House.

At cocktail parties with these people, the “ambitious ass-kickers” Paul Graham thinks will save the New York tech scene, the second question you’re asked is inevitably what do you do? And so begins the not-so-subtle binning of you into your social echelon, more ritualistic and damning than any Japanese business card exchange ceremony:

+2 for working at Goldman Sachs
-1 for being a quant rather than a banker or trader
-1 for living on the Lower East Side
-2 for not being Ivy League
+/- 1 for being Gentile (depends on the cocktail party).

And you’re socially in the red at that point. The rest of the conversation is as vacuous as interstellar space.

I’m from the West Coast. I went to Harvard, but I moved back to the West Coast after graduating, living in the Bay Area, LA, San Diego, and Portland (my favorite city of all). But I finally moved to New York for the change of pace, for the different lifestyle, for the art scene, for the challenge of living in a difficult-to-live place. I’ve lived here for eight years now, have never worked for a bank or financial services company, and for the most part, while I have met, know, and think many folks working for financial services companies are perfectly fine people, I think they’re more or less wasting their lives doing things which are simultaneously boring and unproductive. I am, in other words, a West Coast snob. I think building things is more worthwhile than skimming off the top of the economy. I think hustling is a waste of time and life. You only live once. I have no interest whatsoever in appearing in the Sunday Styles wedding section and I have to say if I ever met anyone remotely interested in that I would run, not walk, the other direction as fast as I could.

But you know what? There are a lot of other people like me here. They are either tired of working for banks or they never took a bank job. They want to build things, too. If all you did when you lived here was work as a quant, no wonder you have a skewed view of what people are into here. I’ve worked for nonprofits, also staffed to the gills with Ivy Leaguers who want to build things and make the world a better place. I’ve worked for startups here too.

Yes, Silicon Alley is probably never going to rival the Valley. But there is a vibrant culture of smart, dedicated builders here who couldn’t care less about the vaporware culture of the financial services world, who want to make a difference, who want to build things and have fun. And frankly, Silicon Alley folks, for whatever reason, seem to be a bit healthier, and more female, than the equivalent crowds in the Valley. Don’t know why, but it’s just an observation.

Quality of life in New York is way less than the Bay Area, yes. Food on the West Coast (not just SF — LA and Portland have superior food in my opinion than New York, too) is far better overall. Produce is better. But there is a real tech culture here and it is not going to disappear.

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