synthetic zero


March 19th, 2012

I breathe in the rain, the dirt on the sidewalks and pavement, the rumble in the depths of the hollow streets. New York is always awake, yet it’s a still, quiet place, at the same time; with all the cacophony. I can hear the silence in the noise, the noise is silence itself. Everything is always already stopped, the motion itself, already.

I wrote this to you:

…there are two ways to think… either running on and on and on… Or… stopping to go deeper and deeper into it, to let yourself seep into it, permeate it and let it permeate you, until you’re thoroughly in it and it is in you, you are it, and then you let it breathe and live through you until suddenly it comes bursting forth as brilliant light.

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February 17th, 2012

I dreamt I was in a strange situation, difficult, like war or something, and I was talking with Susan and decided to make an analogy to the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime.” I started to say, “it’s like that song…” but then I realized I only remembered the last two cities in the line I wanted to quote… “Heard about Detroit? Heard about Pittsburgh P.A.” … but I wanted to remember the first city in the list because that was cooler sounding. I Googled the lyrics… but the site came up with the part of the lyrics blacked out. I kept trying it on my phone and then my laptop but it just kept stalling and not working. Finally, I dreamt I woke up, and I thought, “Oh, the internet doesn’t work in dreams…” I tried it again but it STILL didn’t work! I realized I was STILL dreaming so I forced myself to really wake up, and Googled it… the answer was ”Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit? Heard about Pittsburgh P.A…

I would have thought that perhaps somewhere in my unconscious memory there would have been a fragment of knowing the answer was “Houston” but even using an internet search in my dream, I couldn’t call it up. I think this dream was my unconscious telling me there are limits even to unconscious knowledge, and while I believe in hunches I shouldn’t rely too much on them; sometimes you just have to wake up and find an answer out in the world.

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February 15th, 2012

There’s been an ad for a new show (Awake) about a guy who goes to sleep to wake up in a parallel reality, and vice-versa, and he’s not sure which reality is actually real. I have a bit of that same feeling returning to my home in Oakland; all the familiar smells and sights and sounds of “my” neighborhood, my cats, my apartment… it feels like returning home, which it is. But at the same time, I have my place in New York, and when I come back there it also feels like I’m returning home. Which one is the “real” home? Going back and forth at least once or twice a month, it’s hard to know for certain. What I do know for certain is I feel drawn to both places, there are things I want to do in both places and people I want to see and be with in both places. In either place, friends and family lament the fact that I’m often gone from “home” — where do my real loyalties lie? For now, in both places. It will take time to settle out.

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October 16th, 2011

I’m in London to talk with my friend Jenny Doussan about her remarkable PhD thesis on Agamben and Brentano, which relates to a lot of things I’ve been thinking about recently; it touches upon themes which have fascinated me for decades. It has been a bit surreal being here, as well: I was updating her about the #ows protests (she’s been ensconced in finishing her thesis and thus hasn’t been as plugged into recent events), and of course just as I was telling her there are protests at the London Stock Exchange, as if on cue, the newscaster started talking about it on the radio. I hope to stop by the protest sometime while I’m here, although my primary focus is going to be on conversations with Jenny.

Due to the magic of credit card rewards points, I’m staying in by far the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in in London, the Novotel London Greenwich, which I chose primarily because it’s reasonably close to Jenny’s place in Deptford. My room is actually almost normal-sized by American standards, even though it’s the most affordable room type in the place. It’s a bit funny, however, because, despite the fact that it’s quite spacious, it still sports many of the same features present in the super-cramped closets that you find at most budget London hotels; as though the fact that hotels often have to radically conserve space has set up a “standard” which hotel designers follow even if they have the space to do it differently. There are some tiny closets for hanging your clothing, but no dresser drawers at all. The bathroom has one of those microscopic London sinks (even smaller than this one) next to the toilet, even though, inexplicably, it also has a normal-sized sink. There’s a towel rack placed on the other side of the toilet from the bath/shower/sink, making it quite difficult to access and forcing you to step near the toilet when you’re trying to reach one of the towels (not exactly the most hygenic feeling), something that would make sense if the bathroom were too tiny to allow a more convenient arrangement, but in this case, completely unnecessary, given the spaciousness of the room.

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October 14th, 2011

Kim Davis wrote me an email asking I write a longer post about #occupywallstreet aka #ows, since I’ve been tweeting about it for a while. I’ve actually mostly been just retweeting other people’s tweets, since I was in the Bay Area until a few days ago; and I’m leaving for London today, so my first in-person visit to the protest/occupation was last night.

I arrived in the early evening with a friend who had been to the protest a number of times already; we wandered about the park, which was quite crowded and well-organized; there was a food area, many bags of garbage neatly stacked, people cleaning the park obsessively, many people standing in small groups talking or trying to squeeze past each other, a table where the anarchists were passing out guidebooks, and it was for the most part relatively calm. I stayed for the entire General Assembly meeting, to get a feel for the process. It was, at times, rather excruciating to have to wait for every sentence fragment to be repeated by the group, but overall I came away quite impressed with the thoughtfulness, organization, and deliberation of those gathered there.

It opened with a long explanation of the process, the hand signals we were supposed to use, and the fact that this night (prior to a feared cleanup and eviction which was not to come to pass) required some urgency. Bloomberg had told the protesters they had to vacate the park temporarily to allow the owners to clean it; the protesters, in a little-reported move, responded by obsessively cleaning the park themselves. Many of the announcements during the meeting related to the cleanup or to temporarily removing stuff the protesters had been using for safekeeping during the cleanup. In addition there were brief reports from the various working groups, ranging from legal to “direct action” to Internet… but what I found most interesting was the debate at the end of the GA regarding the drum circles, which, as my friend pointed out, gave one a feeling a bit like observing an ancient Greek debating assembly.

The discussion opened with a report from a representative of a working group responsible for liaising with the larger community (in this case, as represented by the Manhattan Community Board). He started by telling a brief story about how strongly Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President, supported the movement, and how intensely he had defended #ows’s right to assembly and free speech to the press. This was a relatively clever rhetorical move on his part, I thought, because he clearly wanted the crowd to be positively disposed towards their proposal… which he phrased as a compromise, or a request, which was, basically, that really loud drumming (drum circles) be confined to two hours between the hours of 11am and 5pm. A number of people raised concerns, questions, and issues, at which point he pointed out that this wasn’t a “they” trying to oppress the protesters, but rather people who so strongly supported the movement that they were going to come out and sit in solidarity with the protesters at 5am to resist the eviction by the owners. I thought it was a brilliant move on his part to hold that information until later in the debate, to help turn the tide.

Finally, before the vote, there were two “blocks” — i.e., people who felt so strongly about the issue they were willing to block consensus. A couple of the drummers felt that the drumming helped draw people to the park and the hours should be longer than 2 hours — more like 4, or that the window should be extended to include evening hours. The community board liaison countered that the drummers could bring the issue up again at a later Assembly, and reminded them that individual, intimate drumming performances would always be allowed. The drummers persisted in their block, so they moved to “modified consensus” rules at this point — which means that the community could override the consensus with a 90% vote, which occurred.

I had several observations about this: first, I was impressed with the rhetorical skills of the participants. I was also impressed with the willingness of the assembly to work with elected officials (who repaid their trust later on, as Bloomberg later said a big reason the eviction was called off was due to a flood of calls from elected officials to the park owners). The “modified consensus” process seemed to be well-thought-out and ultimately effective. I was a little concerned about what seemed to me to be a bit of a cultural/ethnic divide, however, in the debate about the drum circles — which is one of my general concerns about activism in the US in general (see below) — the two drummers who attempted to block consensus and some of the other people voting “no” were African-American, and, as is common in many activist crowds, most of the people there were white. Overall, however, the portrayal of some in the media of the movement as being rather disorganized, unfocused, etc., was belied by the reality of the thoughtfulness of the rhetoric, the willingness to cooperate with the local community, and the careful organization of the working group reports and cleanup announcements throughout the meeting.

I have to admit my initial feelings about #ows had been ambivalent; I had been happy, of course, that someone was finally protesting the terrible inequities in our current economic system. However, I often feel that activism in the US tends to be rather insular; culturally and even somewhat ethnically insufficiently diverse, disdainful of the need to talk with people of good will of differing views: lacking in sufficient outreach to the very communities progressives hope to help. There can be a bit of an echo chamber feeling, in my mind, where activists talk mostly to each other rather than to the community at large, and too many seem to come from a similar cultural niche; these are people devoted to inclusion who often seem not to include enough people among those we all hope to help (working class people, minorities, and so on). However, there’s no question that this time, for once, a progressive protest in the US has finally really gained the attention of the nation and the world, perhaps for the first time in decades. Adbusters was right, after all: public, physical protest, carefully positioned, can make a significant difference in the public dialogue.

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August 21st, 2011

Today I was walking down the street in Manhattan. Everything feels so vivid, constantly, so large, open, vast. But the other thing which is acutely present for me as I walk down the street is the suffering, the pain and difficulty, the anger, even as, at the same time, there’s a sense of such tremendous… power and beauty? Through it all, I started to wonder, what is the point of me feeling this? I mean, in some sense, yes, there isn’t anything particularly special about the position “I” seemed to be in at that moment, though it feels vast and present, it’s also rife with error and not in any way fundamentally different from anyone or anything else around me (not that the others are in any fundamental sense separate from me). But there’s still this issue — what’s the point of “me”, to the extent that is meaningful to refer to, looking from this vantage point, so to speak, when all around me is such suffering? Suffering in the midst of radical okayness, even so, still suffering.

Every person I passed seemed to shout at me their condition, their situation, so to speak (not that “their condition” actually means something all that well-defined…) and so I started to contemplate this. The tremendous sense of responsibility, a desire to try to work with this odd situation, this strangely okay yet at the same time suffering- and error-filled “situation”.

After a while I started to think, well, this is sort of hubris, it’s not as though I don’t still have much to work on for myself, but the whole “project” of working on my own practice seemed a bit odd. It’s clearly possible for humans to live in this radically, radically different manner, vastly more open and present and engaging with much more of the present being-ness than we usually consciously engage with. Yet at the same time, what’s the implication of that? It seems to be the primary implication is at the same time everything opens up in this vast way, one is also hugely aware of the suffering as well (although “suffering” isn’t really as problematic as it seems, it’s still a serious matter). It just seems to me all my “projects” really ought to be contextualized in this larger situation of the whole world and suffering and pain, so even as I continue to work on my own errors and issues, the problem of how to work with this larger context is still always vividly present.

It is beginning to feel as though part of my larger self includes a vast net which catches the beauty and the pain of the world all at once. It’s excruciatingly, even painfully beautiful and powerful and vast and wise and sad and lovely and breathing and tired and vivid and tragic and satisfying and nourishing and dirty and depraved and cruel and compassionate and light, light, light. The net drags on, gossamer-like, invisible, without weight, trawling up all this and feeding it through my body/energy/mind which isn’t separate from any of it.

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July 14th, 2011


i am finishing up the vegetarian myth and really want to share some excellent passages like this one…

So here’s the basic education in revolution that you didn’t get in public school. There are two cardinal differences between liberal- ism and radicalism. The first…

If this is really the difference between liberals and radicals, then I don’t fall into either category (or I partially fall into both). Class power relations are real and have to be dealt with, but at the same time oppression can also be fought through education (a great example is the shift in attitude towards LGBT issues — a slow but steady change in public opinion is and will ultimately result in a changed society: and this change has been due to both activism and education). Individual consumer choices will never make a significant dent in environmental crises, yet political change on this issue depends on people being educated about the problem. The financial crisis was brought on by the greed of the powerful manipulating the political system in their favor, yet the people who did this manipulation also believe in their ideas (the idea that the more free the market, the better). Pretending that people aren’t grouped into classes by human behavior (conscious and unconscious) or by the actions of power groups is naive, but reifying the categories is simplistic and in an ironic twist also disempowering: because you can think of yourself as the powerless fighting against the powerful without realizing that you have levers of power which can also align with you, and in fact it is possible to persuade the powerful as well as fight them when they are oppressive.

What goes wrong in the world is an interlinking morass of both lack of understanding and power relationships between various groups of people. The power relations, however, aren’t entirely conscious (this is a point which Chomsky makes but which many “radicals” seem to fail to realize —- I often notice a tendency among the radical left to ascribe Machiavellian motives to everything that occurs, when in fact a huge contributor to things going wrong is sheer stupidity or laziness). The powerful classes are, yes, manipulating the world to keep themselves on top, but they’re also making huge mistakes with consequences which will eventually have results even they don’t intend or desire. There’s a reality to categories (classes, liberal vs radical, etc.) but they are also abstractions culled from a far more complex interconnected reality which cannot be distilled into simple binary oppositions.

We human beings have a very difficult time understanding complex feedback systems, but we live in a complex feedback system which was only partly designed and has mostly just accreted over time.

Both right and left try to deal with this not by actually understanding complex feedback systems, but by reifying principles. The right’s principles are the reification of “feedback never happens! let’s live as though it never happens!” and the left’s principles end up getting overly focused on the evils of specific classes of people which are based in reality insofar they are doing bad things, but only partly correct because the reason they’re doing bad things is due to a combination of both bad intentions and stupidity (i.e., the financial crisis was partly caused by an idiotic application of the a certain risk estimation strategy).

When someone like Obama becomes president, we end up with this comical dialogue where one side is angrily demanding that we pretend the world has no interconnections at all (the right) and the other demands that we think the world is interconnected, but in an oversimplified way. This ironically weakens the progressive forces when we need all the strength we can muster to fight both the power and the stupidity. I hope, perhaps fruitlessly, for the day when both so-called “radicals” and so-called “liberals” can learn something from each other and join forces.

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June 19th, 2011

I wrote the following letter in response to this bizarre and wrongheaded article in Salon, Is It Time to Kill the Liberal Arts Degree?

As an engineering manager in the tech industry, I have to say this article is totally, utterly misguided and wrong. If anything, college has already moved far too much into the vocational school arena. The purpose of a university education isn’t, I repeat isn’t and shouldn’t ever become mere job training. If you want job training, go to ITT Technical Institute. If you want an education, go to a liberal arts college or university.

One of our singular strengths as a nation is our post-secondary educational system. While we lag far behind the rest of the world in primary and secondary education, we remain far ahead of the world in terms of college education, at least at the elite level. Our top universities consistently rank far ahead of the rest of the world. Furthermore, only in the United States and Canada does the ideal of the liberal arts education really have a strong foothold — and this is something we should continue to encourage, not move away from as this completely misguided article suggests.

As a manager who is constantly looking for employees who can think critically, I am constantly grateful for the liberal arts tradition in our country. Liberal arts doesn’t mean simply the existence of degrees in literature and the humanities — it means that every student at our colleges has access to a broad educational palette to choose from. Even people who graduate as physics or engineering majors typically also have taken some literature and history in college; it’s usually required that students take a broad array of distribution requirements. This is not something which happens in other countries; in the UK, for example, students go straight from high school to medical school or law school, completely skipping the undergraduate level, with the notion, perhaps, that getting a broad education is unnecessary if you’re going to go into a profession such as medicine or law.

But what we need in today’s economy is broad-based critical thinking. I don’t want or need to hire an engineer who can’t communicate well in English or who has no ability to work with designers, marketing people, project managers, user researchers… Building products for the next century requires not only a deep but a wide understanding of the human condition, of how people live, how they think, how they function in the world. I’ve hired engineers who were English majors and designers who have degrees in architecture and technical project managers who are also novelists in their spare time. And all of those hires were spectacularly successful, in no small part to the liberal arts education they all received as undergraduates.

We have a proud and long tradition of the liberal arts in this country. It’s no wonder that Europe and Japan, which lack this tradition, have been unable to catch up with us in areas of tech innovation. They don’t and have never understood the value and power of liberal arts. Now is not the time to start copying them.

Moving away from the liberal arts ideal is not only bad from an intellectual and moral standpoint; it’s bad from an economic standpoint.

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May 23rd, 2011

I had dinner with my old college classmate Elisabeth Sperling; we once lived in this magical world called the Dudley Coop, a pair of old Victorian houses at Harvard housing 35 undergraduates. Living there was one of the most intense experiences of my life — everyone who lived there, I think, was strongly affected by it. It had a long history; SDS ran a printing press in the basement of the place in the 60’s, there was graffiti all over the walls spanning decades, the main house (3 Sacramento St, or “3 Sac”) once had the sign “Center for High-Energy Metaphysics” on it, and Elisabeth and Eva decided, one day, to recreate the sign, which still hangs, today, over the entrance.

For many, many years after I left the Coop I had dreams about the place; in particular, in my dreams I would often find hidden passageways with more rooms. (Later I found out many of my fellow former Coopers had the same recurring dream, oddly enough.) We lived together, cooked together, had strange conversations late into the night. There was an air of possibility, of new ideas, a sense that at any moment we might stumble upon the secret to the universe in one of those bull sessions. And I think we did, at times, touch on parts of it; it wasn’t just a feeling that it might happen, it really did, sometimes, in fragments.

It’s been many years since I’ve spent a lot of time with Elisabeth (not for want of trying — long story); we talked about all sorts of things, ranging from educational policy to Deming quality control to the tech industry … but we also talked about the old days. She reminded me of a few incidents which stood out for her in her mind, things I did — for example, one of her most vivid memories of me was when, one day, she was making bread in the kitchen, and the counter was covered in flour, and I came in and just leaned over until my nose was an inch from the flour, and I stayed like that, for quite a while, not making a sound, until Elisabeth couldn’t resist coming over and tapping me on the back of my head so I got flour on my nose. We both laughed, of course, and she asked me what I had been doing. I said, “I was experimenting with horizontal and vertical.”

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May 10th, 2011

I think there are two major, semi-independent problems with the economy:

1) Real wages for the middle and lower classes have been stagnant for the last few decades (particularly the last decade) while income for the top 1% has skyrocketed and continues to climb. The net effect of the above is that, due to massive improvements in efficiency and productivity, wealth generated by American businesses has gone up steadily for decades, nearly all of the benefit of this has accrued to the ownership class.

2) The speculators invented a crazy system of securities in the wake of financial deregulation which hinged on an unbelievably stupid application of the Gaussian copula function for estimating default correlation. This one mistake amplified what could have been a “normal” real estate bubble into a bubble of gargantuan proportions. The danger to the real economy was drastically worsened by the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the lack of regulatory oversight of the shadow banking system. As far as bubbles, they’re not all alike; I personally would much rather see a bubble caused by excessive speculation on actual companies (i.e., IPOs) than a bubble caused by speculation on synthetic securities whose value was based on a fantasy. At least venture capitalists are trying to build something new, and if we have to go through some mild crashes as a result, I think that’s worth some risk (the economic consequences of the tech crash of 2000 were far less severe than the synthetic  securities crash of 2008).

It seems to me that 1 and 2 are relatively independent problems. 1) is probably caused by the decline of unions, the rise of Ayn Rand thinking among the upper classes: the ownership class believes that it truly is virtually solely responsible for the generation of wealth, almost single-handedly taking all increases in proceeds and giving none of it to the people who actually do the work. Furthermore the drastic lowering of tax rates on the wealthy has further contributed to this steady, unfair imbalance. 2) is a problem of speculative bubbles and insulating the regular banking system from the speculative system. Obama addressed 2) to some degree with financial regulatory reform: the creation of a somewhat weakened Volcker Rule, intended to isolate speculative activity to some degree from the operation of “normal” banking, regulation of the shadow banking system, and so forth, but he has not yet significantly addressed 1).

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