synthetic zero


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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August 14th, 2009

Just saw Julie / Julia which was, like many Nora Ephron films, enjoyable but not meaty. However, one has to stand amazed at the virtuosic performance of Meryl Streep, as always. The film has inspired me in one way, however, to begin to write regularly again in this space. I’ve decided to take a vow to write at least once a day, even if it is only to write something quite brief. After all, I nagged Heather Anne Halpert for years about restarting her blog, which she has finally done, wonderfully; I should follow my own advice.

I had a conversation with Orion the other day, and she was telling me about her desire for privacy; her reluctance to be too public, to have her writing too much in the public eye. This is a concern a number of other people have expressed to me; Heather Anne, Katharine Tillman, and other friends who I can’t even mention because they’re so private! The fact that they’re all women is a curiosity, yet to be explained — but they all seem to have their own reasons for their reluctance to write or reveal parts of themselves in public. Katharine, however, was just remarking to me yesterday that she now finds herself fairly exposed online — her excellent blog is viewable to all (she used to keep much of it password-protected), her Facebook account is visible to not only her online friends but her family, etc., and somewhat to her surprise, she finds herself comfortable with this.

Rather contentious, but interesting, debate on “religious” versus “secular” Buddhism on the One City blog, in which I and a number of other people participate in a lively debate touching on everything from questioning the ontological distinction itself to the status of “metaphysical” concepts such as reincarnation and karma to the relative importance of “belief” vs skeptical inquiry in Buddhism both traditionally and in the West.

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August 8th, 2009

I have to admit, Twitter has begun to siphon off my normal blogging energy — I post ideas as tweets and don’t bother to write paragraphs about them. I vow, however, to correct this at some point in the near future.

Meanwhile, allow me to retweet some of my more recent tweets, here on my blog (aka my Facebook notes).

Interesting Buddhist blog started by the Interdependence Project which I believe is the brainchild of Ethan Nichtern.

Buddhist Geeks: Buddhist podcasts (recommended by Judy Bunce).

Just got back from a retreat last week, had a lot of interesting conversations, about which I will post soon.

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June 28th, 2009

I sent this email on my speculations about the situation in Iran to Andrew Sullivan just now, which he quoted more or less in its entirety:

Trying to figure out what is going on in Iran behind the scenes is obviously tricky and fraught with potential error, but I’ll list out my evidence and then my speculation for your consideration.

1) Larijani and a majority of the conservative-led Majlis did not show up for Ahmadinejad’s victory party.

2) Larijani announces the formation of a committee to investigate violence against students and protesters, prompting some calls for his impeachment.

3) Rafsanjani issues a cryptic statement, calling for fair investigations into the vote.

4) Rafsanjani’s daughter attends the rally today, according to reports.

5) Guardian Council makes more concessions to try to get Mousavi’s participation in the recount, now including involving more people than they’d originally suggested for the review board.

6) Businesses are reporting huge drops in shoppers in Tehran’s bazaar and elsewhere, as the city suffers being under lockdown.

7) Khamenei conspicuously singles out Rafsanjani for praise in his Friday prayers over a week ago.

Here’s my speculation.

Khamenei is afraid that Rafsanjani could depose him, but Rafsanjani is unwilling to depose Khamenei unilaterally as he rightly fears that such a move might not succeed as the military  might move against him regardless of votes he may have or not have in Qom. Regardless, the two are warily eyeing each other and thus Khamenei is open to some pressure from Rafsanjani even though Rafsanjani is unwilling to move dramatically against him.

The continued tension in Tehran isn’t being dispelled by the police state tactics, and it is hurting business; this could lead to a downward spiral if the government maintains its attempt to quell dissent through massive police presence.

Today’s demonstration clearly indicates people aren’t “back to business as usual” — they’re angry, disturbed, and still willing to demonstrate in large numbers whenever they get the chance. Clearly the government has a hard task — and their crude efforts to contain the crisis are not convincing the people. My guess is that Rafsanjani may be trying to force the government to bring Mousavi and Karroubi together to certify the election result in order to restore Iranian stability.

The government is thus getting more desperate to get them to participate, because they may be beginning to realize that the anger among the people is having a long term impact on the country. My guess is that this also serves to somewhat restrain the government. It’s evident possibly even majorities of a number of councils and parliament are suspicious of the election outcome. I don’t think this revolution is anywhere close to over.

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June 27th, 2009

Simone Weil on Evil:

Monotony of evil: never anything new, everything about it is equivalent. Never anything real, everything about it is imaginary.

….The ‘I’ leaves its mark on the world as it destroys.

…. Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.

….That which is the direct opposite of an evil never belongs to the order of higher good. It is often scarcely any higher than evil! Examples: theft and the bourgeois respect for property, adultery and the ‘respectable woman’; the savings bank and waste; lying and ’sincerity’.

….Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.

….The innocent victim who suffers knows the truth about his executioner, the executioner does not know it.

….It is the innocent victim who can feel hell.

….The unreality which takes the goodness from good; this is what constitutes evil. Evil is always the destruction of tangible things in which there is the real presence of good. Evil is carried out by those who have no knowledge of this real presence. In that sense it is true that no one is wicked voluntarily. The relations between forces give to absence the power to destroy presence.

We cannot contemplate without terror the extent of the evil which man can do and endure.

….That which gives more reality to beings and things is good, that which takes it from them is evil.

….We are at the point where love is just possible. It is a great privilege, since the love which unites is in proportion to the distance.

Somehow the events in Iran make the above feel all the more poignant and directly present; she’s not talking about mere abstraction, but about something eminently present and deadly, now.

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