synthetic zero


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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December 19th, 2008

Email is for old people, they say; younger people have moved on to IM, Facebook/Myspace, and text messaging as their preferred means of communication.  Though I certainly fit into the “old” category (my peers are probably the oldest people to have grown up with personal computers at home), and I still use email (mostly for work, which I suspect most of these “young people” will end up using for that purpose as well, later), I also have moved on to IM and Facebook (though not text messaging — which is a total ripoff cost-wise, in my opinion) for most of my social interaction.  A lot of my age-peers, though, haven’t, which is quite annoying … but there’s an even worse communications tool, this thing people call a “phone.” I try to avoid it as much as possible but I find is it still used, often by people even older than me.

Phones, from my point of view, are useful for coordinating with people you’re trying to meet with for a concert or dinner or something, emergencies, and maybe ordering pizza (though even that is being replaced by the web).  Beyond that, they’re annoying devices: when someone calls you have to either take the call or let it go to voicemail.  You then have to pick up your message, which involves listening to it and then somehow writing down the information in the message, which is often inconvenient.  Etc., etc.  I have gotten to the point where I tell people: I much prefer email or IM as a means of communication; if you call me don’t expect to get a call back quickly, if at all… and please don’t call me if you can at all avoid it.

On the other hand, I’ve also noticed a generation gap with people vis a vis email vs IM.  I’m a very IM-oriented person, and have been for a very long time — been using it from the ancient days of ICQ.  In fact, my friend Doug Cutrell and I once designed an IM service long ago, before it had been invented — we decided not to implement it because we thought it was “too obvious”… ha.  I like IM because it combines the back-and-forth quality of a conversation with the asynchronous nature of email.  But, I’ve found some people (often my age) either prefer email or don’t even use IM at all… it’s definitely a culture gap.  I’ve used IM as my primary means of communication for a long time, and I use it also for work, quite a bit; I was surprised when I got to Google (a job I have recently left, by the way — I’ll write about that another time) and found they still communicate primarily with email… a little behind the times!

ps Armi Chan reminded me that hearing someone’s voice can be nice.  That’s true — I like to hear AND see people, sometimes … for that I prefer using something like Skype video chat.  But then it makes sense to start on text IM, and transition to Skype video later…

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December 16th, 2008

Check out the first episode of the new mini-series Vibrant Futures, by my friend Lea Cetera of Imagination Explosion, and Robin Schavoir.  I have a brief cameo role as the closeup version of “Spirit Bear”, in a later episode…  In their words: “Vibrant Futures is a mini-series about a community of anarchist tree-dwelling hippies living in giant redwoods that experience a rebirth of consciousness. Originally written and conceived as a five hour long film, it has been subdivided into a series of open-ended episodes being produced and released in consecutive order.”

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December 3rd, 2008

Went to my home state of California, and my home city of Los Angeles, for Thanksgiving, as usual, and it was warm, sunny, casual, and … plain, which is actually what I like about it. One thing that always seems far more exciting, however, in Los Angeles, is seeing movies … people are more excited in the theaters, there’s more of a sense of something happening; perhaps it’s because the movie industry is headquartered in LA, but people act almost as though the makers of the film are there in the audience, watching the film with them (and some of them may well be, in fact.)

I saw a movie at the Landmark Theater, for example, in West LA.  It’s a “premium” theater, charging $12 for a ticket, which is actually pretty much the price of an ordinary ticket in Manhattan. For this you get assigned seating, ushers, a little speech before the film by one of the ushers, a guy in the bathroom making sure the towels don’t run out, etc. All slightly tongue-in-cheek (unlike New York, which takes its luxury accoutrements seriously, to the point of absurdity, in Los Angeles, people play with luxury as though it is a game … which is, of course, what it is…)  Moviegoers are drinking POM and having lattes in their super comfortable seats.  The picture is very much in your face, low to the ground (giving it a more visceral, present feel, more like theater, rather than this screen you’re craning your neck to see, project high above everyone’s heads), it’s in focus, and the sound system is expertly calibrated for the room. All in all, a fun, engaging, irreverent, and strangely joyful community experience. It’s too bad the rest of the country, and the world, don’t experience going to the movies the way people in city that makes the movies experience it…

Later, we went to Sacramento to see my aunt Mariko Yamada (my mom’s youngest sister) get sworn in to the California State Assembly (!) She was just elected, even though she started as the underdog in the primary race in her home town of Davis, California. Congratulations, auntie!

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November 28th, 2008

There’s an interesting tension between structure and freedom; normally, we see these as in opposition but in fact there’s a curious dynamic, which is: leaving things mostly unstructured (that is to say, attempting to design, build, manage, or create something with a minimum of formal process) can, in fact, discourage rather than encourage openness and amplify unconscious habits and allow unexamined assumptions to proliferate and dominate. Of course, process can be stifling, especially if it is overly heavyweight; however, it’s also the case that plunging forward without carefully examining and reexamining one’s prejudices, without explicitly providing space and time to discover the unexpected, can lead to repetition rather than novelty, stasis rather than creativity.

It’s important, therefore, to balance freedom with process; it’s possible to be systematic about deconstructing one’s preconceptions, about carefully observing the results of one’s work, about listening to the world, discovering things about the effect one’s designs and actions are having or might have, on the world.  A concrete example would be doing user testing of a proposed design; rather than simply building something and hoping it is easy to use or understandable, trying it out with potential users and observing what happens. Another would be engaging in a Deming cycle of continuous process improvement: regularly examining and reexamining the way one is managing, building, designing, and updating a process or a product. Another, more personal, example might be sitting meditation: providing a context in which one is not trying to “do” something active, but simply paying attention, providing a space to notice things about one’s situation, habits, or context which might otherwise go unnoticed in the flurry of activity that fills most people’s lives. One can make some effort to regularly examine one’s activity and formulate testable hypotheses about it; i.e., create a theory, a view of a process, one which, being explicit, is open to question and revision, rather than simply plunging forward without forming any provisional views (neglecting to form a view is not the same as having no views; it simply means one’s hidden assumptions and unstated views become the unquestioned set of assumptions under which one operates.)

There are so many assumptions people make, small and large, all the time, which are, in fact, worth examining; everything from how to tie your shoes to the nature of time, space, memory, desire, fear, love, and action. And, it helps to use forms, structures, to aid us in seeing and uncovering these assumptions, so they can be refined and opened up to something larger, more encompassing, more precise, and more practical.  Using a form (a process or practice), in other words, to break down the tyranny of forms (preconceptions and habits of mind and body).

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