synthetic zero


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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November 6th, 2008

I was watching the election on NBC, mostly, because they were calling states earlier than the other networks … when they called Ohio I shouted, jumped up and down, and yelled for quite a while.  Still, most people around me, in real life, or virtually, were bracing themselves for some sort of 2000 or 2004 redux… could this really be happening?  I got IM’s and text messages: are you sure he’s won it?  Are you really sure?  Yes, I’m sure, I said, but I couldn’t help feeling just a tiny bit relieved and that much more excited when the networks all, in unison, at precisely 11:00pm, put up the full screen graphics … BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT.

It was and still feels like a surreal moment.  Of course we all shouted and whooped here in the Bronx.  A friend in Malaysia IM’d be they were celebrating there.  Jenny Doussan, in London, added her whoops to ours in New York.  Caroline skype videoed me a scene of Canadians, who had been watching the election on CNN up there, break out into a spontaneous rendition of America the Beautiful.  It was so sweet and touching; an acquaintance of mine was moved to tears, hearing about that.  So many other stories of people crying, shouting, laughing, pumping fists, celebrations into the night in cities all over the country (such as my former hometown of Portland) and even all over the world.  After the speeches I drove Katharine, who’d been watching the elections with us, back to her place, and on the way back, encountered a raucous street party in Harlem; the police had closed off much of 125th Street and were directing traffic.  Strangers looked at me sitting in my car and shouted and pumped their fists in celebration; I honked my horn in return.

By the way: the Oregonian has called the Senate race there for Jeff Merkley; I trust their projection based on what I’ve read, meaning we have at least 57 seats in the new Senate. Quite an election.

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November 3rd, 2008

Just saw Synecdoche, New York — loved it. Tour de force, another Charlie Kaufman masterpiece.  Quite neurotic, of course, but shining through the neurosis is strange wisdom and an odd hopefulness.  I love the existential references; the slowly burning house, the endless simulation and mirroring, the crossing between levels of simulation … there’s something profound about the postmodern interest in simulation.  It’s not just a pomo gimmick … the metaphor of simulation is a way of freeing ourselves from the notion that our constructs cover our reality.  Baudrillard’s idea is that simulation can become its own reality, with the implication that may be no “reality” but only simulation.  I would say that every way of describing reality is in some sense a simulation, yet there can be an endlessly open ground of being that is always beyond every simulation (this is more the Buddhist viewpoint).  This sort of reality can assert itself, however, in the form of what one might call “nature” — it also has its say in violence and in the breakdown of systems (which Kaufman also touches upon near the end of his film).  A simulated world can only survive as long as the substrate (body/being) maintains itself.  But then again, is the “body” itself substantial?  One could suggest that the entire universe is just information, transformations of information.  So then what is the “substrate”?  More information?  I would suggest that our perception/mind co-creates the substrate which supports the mind — it’s a kind of perceptual/matter feedback loop, a la Buddhist codependent arising.  From this point of view, the “substrate” and the simulation aren’t two meta-levels but in some sense can be seen to create each other.  However … the interesting thing is, the information carried in any meta-description of a system can never entirely capture the “underlying” system (the map is not the territory), and thus there will always be an opening for the “unknown” or “unknowable” in any description of the world.  I think Kaufman plays with this fact as he tries to work with the problem of life, death, meaning, etc., in his amazing new film (not explicitly, as I’ve done here, but implicitly, almost intuitively).

I apologize for writing in such an opaque manner; just trying to jot down quick notes before I go to bed.

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October 29th, 2008

I was thinking about this passage, today, from Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

During the last ten years of his life, [my father] gradually lost the power of speech…in the end he could utter only a very small number of words, and every attempt to define his thoughts resulted in the same sentence, one of the last sentences remaining to him: “That’s strange.”

He said “that’s strange,” and his eyes showed the immense astonishment of knowing everything and being able to say nothing…

Throughout the ten years, Papa worked on a big book about Beethoven’s sonatas. He probably wrote a little better than he spoke, but even while writing he had more and more trouble finding words, and finally his text had become incomprehensible, consisting of nonexistent words.

He called me into his room one day. Open on the piano was the variations movement of the Opus 111 sonata. “Look,” he said, pointing to the music (he could no longer play the piano). And again, “Look,” and then, after a prolonged effort, he succeeded in saying, “Now I know!” and kept trying to explain something important to me, but his entire message consisted of unintelligible words, and seeing that I did not understand him, he looked at me in surprise and said, “That’s strange.”

I know of course what he wanted to talk about, because it was a question he had been asking himself for a long time. Variation form was Beethoven’s favorite toward the end of his life. At first glance, it seems the most superficial of forms, a simple showcase of musical technique, work better suited to a lacemaker than to a Beethoven. But Beethoven made it a sovereign form (for the first time in the history of music), inscribing in it his most beautiful meditations.

Yes, all that is well known. But Papa wanted to know how it should be understood. Why exactly choose variations? What meaning is hidden behind it?

That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said, “Now I know!”

….I am going to try to explain it with a comparison. A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensées, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into the other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world hidden in all things.

…Variation form is the form in which the concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the marvelous depths of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves further and further away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack that other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach….

It is not surprising that in his later years variations become the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well…that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.

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October 9th, 2008

Roubini, cheery as always:

At this point severe damage is done and one cannot rule out a systemic collapse and a global depression. It will take a significant change in leadership of economic policy and very radical, coordinated policy actions among all advanced and emerging market economies to avoid this economic and financial disaster. Urgent and immediate necessary actions that need to be done globally (with some variants across countries depending on the severity of the problem and the overall resources available to the sovereigns) include:

- another rapid round of policy rate cuts of the order of at least 150 basis points on average globally;

- a temporary blanket guarantee of all deposits while a triage between insolvent financial institutions that need to be shut down and distressed but solvent institutions that need to be partially nationalized with injections of public capital is made;

- a rapid reduction of the debt burden of insolvent households preceded by a temporary freeze on all foreclosures;

- massive and unlimited provision of liquidity to solvent financial institutions;

- public provision of credit to the solvent parts of the corporate sector to avoid a short-term debt refinancing crisis for solvent but illiquid corporations and small businesses;

- a massive direct government fiscal stimulus packages that includes public works, infrastructure spending, unemployment benefits, tax rebates to lower income households and provision of grants to strapped and crunched state and local government;

- a rapid resolution of the banking problems via triage, public recapitalization of financial institutions and reduction of the debt burden of distressed households and borrowers;

- an agreement between lender and creditor countries running current account surpluses and borrowing and debtor countries running current account deficits to maintain an orderly financing of deficits and a recycling of the surpluses of creditors to avoid a disorderly adjustment of such imbalances.

At this point anything short of these radical and coordinated actions may lead to a market crash, a global systemic financial meltdown and to a global depression. At this stage central banks that are usually supposed to be the “lenders of last resort” need to become the “lenders of first and only resort” as, under conditions of panic and total loss of confidence, no one in the private sector is lending to anyone else since counterparty risk is extreme. And fiscal authorities that usually are spenders and insurers of last resort need to temporarily become the spenders and insurers of first resort. The fiscal costs of these actions will be large but the economic and fiscal costs of inaction would be of a much larger and severe magnitude. Thus, the time to act is now as all the policy officials of the world are meeting this weekend in Washington at the IMF and World Bank annual meetings.

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October 7th, 2008

This is a time that will be remembered in the history books.  It’s certainly the end of Reaganomics and it may be the beginning of a massive worldwide depression.  The issues are complex and there are way more than two sides to this, but I will say this: the Federal government as well as the governments of all the developed nations need to act immediately to forestall an economic catastrophe.  There are some who are saying we ought to have let the banks fail — a variation of the laissez-faire attitudes that brought us the Great Depression.  Yes, these bankers are hardly sympathetic figures — but there’s a fire raging and the whole world is at risk at this point.

The bailout was highly flawed, and yet, SOME sort of bailout needed to get passed … but it isn’t going to be enough. MUCH more needs to be done. May you live in interesting times.

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October 2nd, 2008

It’s a scary, dramatic time, but I am actually hopeful. These will be difficult years ahead, but one thing’s for sure: we won’t be able to keep doing what we have been doing. In the midst of this crisis is an opportunity to remake our world. The purveyors of unrestricted unregulated capitalism have been thoroughly discredited at this point. What happens when you deregulate completely? Ponzi schemes.

I’m all in favor of the free market but you have to temper it with intelligent oversight and regulation, to keep it stable. This idea had faded into the background but it’s now back. It’s now not only credible it’s what the world is looking to us to do to save ourselves from our own shortsightedness. Yes, the rescue bill is incredibly flawed — but it’s obvious we have to do something massive, and soon. This is a turning point in American, and world, history. You’re living through it, folks. We’re going to be in the history books, right here, right now.

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October 1st, 2008

It’s strange days indeed these days. Human beings, for some reason, tend to underestimate the frequency of rare events, and even after they occur we go back to the presumption of normality.  We get used to the fact that incredible events have occurred in the past, but somehow assume they will not recur in the future.  Here we are, however, living through a series of incredible events (though, they’re events that ought to have been foreseen).  I hope we’ll remember this … and remember that seemingly incredible things happen with surprising frequency.

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September 30th, 2008

An incredible day … shocking, really, though not totally unexpected. I have my doubts about the RTC approach Paulson proposed; it’s possible that Nouriel Roubini’s plan of a HOLC-style program, or, alternately, a program to purchase shares in financial institutions (thereby recapitalizing them) by the government would have been a lot more effective. However, clearly, something needs to be done to restore liquidity to the markets and doing nothing, in this environment, is tremendously dangerous. The stakes are very high. Note that the amended plan does allow for gaining warrants for equity in the banks — this point perhaps ought to be clarified and extended (as it’s not clear Paulson would drive a hard bargain in this respect — but because he has to report to Congress it seems there is some incentive for him to drive a hard bargain).  All in all the plan is flawed but some plan is needed in this situation.  It’s very strange days indeed.

Meanwhile, on a totally different topic: my friend Nora Herting has a new project, www.faceofbrooklyn.com, a project she’s doing for the Brooklyn Historical Society, in which she’s taking portraits of people in various neighborhoods of Brooklyn.  An interesting project — also, somewhat frustrating, as she has had difficulty getting people in some neighborhoods to agree to be photographed; perhaps, she thinks, because they may not entirely be comfortable with a white female photographer doing an art project in their neighborhood.  She told me she’s going to try to see if she can work discussion of that element into the project somehow.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to find artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc., who want to use my giant art space (1400 square feet! 12 foot ceilings!) for exhibits, performances, rehearsals, etc.  Also, still looking for artists for my November show.

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September 29th, 2008

Finally done setting up all the templates, so posting should be happening more frequently now.

I’ve recently had a revelation about a sort of systematic pattern which has always fascinated me, but I now realize it shows up all over the place, across many different disciplines and in many contexts. The essence of the problem is ignoring the effect of hidden coupling and connections between different parts of a system — you can see this in the recent fiscal crisis (in which the ratings agencies mispriced the risk of these securities by assuming that every mortgage was independent of every other mortgage, not realizing that once the market started to contract, a whole class of mortgages was at risk), but you also see in everything from the Chernobyl accident to ecological disasters (as illustrated by Dietrich Dorner in his excellent book The Logic of Failure), as well as in human psychology, where we naively ignore the impact of the unconscious, and we assume the mind and body are independent… there are so many variations of this mistake.  What is needed is a fundamental shift in view to one in which the complex nature of systems are respected — including the nature of our own minds.  I have much to say on this subject.

Google update: I still think it is a remarkable company, but as I expected I’m beginning to see the flaws in the place. The downside of it being so decentralized, so bottom-up, is that there is a tendency for some teams to “wing it” — not enough attention is paid to certain processes and best practices that I’ve found are very useful. It’s a very engineering-driven culture, and there’s less attention paid to non-engineering design (user experience is greatly respected at Google, yet I don’t think fully understood — of course, this varies a lot by team).  I will have more to say about this later.

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