synthetic zero


July 24th, 2010

One of the interesting things about visiting or spending time in the context of other countries and cultures (I am just returning from an intense two week visit to India which I plan to write about at length later) is noticing the unspoken assumptions of your own culture much more forcefully. For example, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how rule-oriented we are in the United States; perhaps driven to some extent by the fact that our social contract is very explicit, it’s written down, we have a tendency to want to be explicit about everything. We write these gigantic contracts hundreds of pages long, and we even have the temerity to ask people to “agree” to laughably enormous contracts as a routine matter when buying or signing up for online goods or services, based on a somehow ludicrous fiction that we are actually reading these things when everyone knows we don’t. Contracts in other countries are often either nonexistent, based purely on handshake agreements, or far more brief than what we use in America. The UK doesn’t have a written constitution, for example; rather it has a scattering of written documents overlaid with precedent and tradition in some cases only instantiated in the minds of living people.

A peculiarly American tendency is to want, therefore, to find some way to clearly define and capture life in terms of some clear rules; it’s actually quite beneficial in many cases, but it can descend into lunacy in others. Mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, and so on, are all examples of this tendency taken to its ridiculous extreme, and there are many cases where taking away intuitive discretion leads to completely absurd results. I think taking this to an extreme shows us as still a somewhat adolescent, somewhat immature culture — for all the ways in which America leads the world, there are many ways in which we betray our relative youth as a civilizational system. In the end, however, for all our tendency towards excessively legalistic processes, we are also pragmatic; we’ve pulled back from our more absurd excesses (Prohibition, mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, etc.) and I think we’ll continue to do so in the future. It’s a deeply embedded habit, however, and will be with us for a very long time.

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July 9th, 2010

I’m flying to India, starting fifteen hours from now. That is, if the plane manages to arrive safely (I’m not paranoid about flying, but I don’t like to be presumptuous about my continued survival). I am surrounded by little piles of stuff which make up my attempts at preparation, including “PacSafe” backpack protection meshes and all sorts of little travel doodads and clothes and mosquito repellent and maps. All this was prompted by my friend Orion inviting me (”you must come to India!”) and the fortuitous coincidence that three friends of mine happen to live in Bangalore and Orion also had a reason to visit Bangalore, so… I’m going to Bangalore and environs for two weeks.

I’m not entirely sure what to expect or not expect, so I’m more or less trying to be open to whatever might happen. I’m sleepy but I figure if I stay up later and later now I’ll have a bit less jet lag to deal with on arrival. Of course, it’s only 3pm in Bangalore and 5am here, but I’m into the gradual shifts…

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July 6th, 2010

I like the fact that the awkward “www” managed to survive from the earliest days despite various abortive attempts to replace it with something easier to pronounce, such as “home” or “web”. Many people may have forgotten that it stands for “World Wide Web”, but its survival attests to something a little delightfully perverse in human nature, a desire to retain something that simply looks cool despite its impracticality.

It’s odd to think of the “history of the web” having really started in earnest only fifteen years ago; Katharine is writing about her own struggles with keeping, rather than trying to efface, earlier identities; but we talk about the Internet as of ten or fifteen years ago like ancient ruins from a bygone progenitor civilization. It’s strange to think that most of us were in fact there at or near the beginning of the public Internet; Heather Anne Halpert, with whom I’m collaborating on an exciting new project, recently discovered, via Molly Steenson, that a brief interchange between herself and Peter Merholz about the word “weblog” (a word which Peter coined) is now enshrined in the OED; all people I know and have hung out with at various moments over the years; they’re not historical figures from fabled tales of yore. It’s strange to live at a time when the entire history of something is contained not only within one’s lifetime but within a fraction of one’s lifetime, yet thinking about things as they were ten years ago seems to telescope into something that feels a little like an archeological expedition.

I don’t worry as Katharine does about effacing or contending with my own past, so much; partly, perhaps, because I’ve never written in the overly confessional style myself, online, but also partly because I have structured my life so that even if some or all of my secrets were to get out, it wouldn’t be too terrible. Another reason, however, is simply that information and change seems to be exploding at such a rate that the online past seems to be more rapidly receding than it once did. Remember Alta Vista? ICQ? Friendster?

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July 4th, 2010

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” -Paul Bowles

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July 3rd, 2010

{S0NiK} Fest and Synthetic Zero Event

{S0NiK} Fest and Synthetic Zero are putting on a joint noise/experimental/video/art/performance event tonight, Saturday, July 3, 7pm-10pm and Wednesday, July 7 6pm-9pm at BronxArtSpace. Please forward this around and share the Facebook event or the event tweet with your friends.

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June 16th, 2010

Ayn Rand was wrong. Of course, it’s difficult to summarize one’s thinking in a tweet limited to 140 characters; my friend Lisa Plaxco asked me to elaborate, so I’ll attempt to do so in this blog post. Let me start with where I agree with Rand. I agree that blind faith, or believing things without reason, is both unnecessary and in many ways problematic.

But there are so many points at which she goes wrong. Perhaps one of the most fundamental has to do with her conflation of propositional logic and ordinary meaning. As Einstein famously said, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Einstein understood the fundamental issue here, which is that to conflate a description of reality with reality itself is to make a very elementary mistake.

Ordinary concepts and propositions simply do not map into the Objectivist conceptual structure: for example, take the assertion that all propositions are either true or false. I remember bringing this up with a classmate of mine in my freshman year at Harvard… he was a physics major and a big fan of Rand. Very smart guy, so I decided to explore this issue with him, because I thought he could appreciate the argument.

The basic argument I made was this: if all propositions are either true, or false, let’s take a simple proposition such as “the apple is red.” Is this true, or false? What if you had an apple and you slowly, ever so slowly, changed it from red to orange? At what point would the proposition cease to be true, and become false?

Or let’s take a statement such as “It is hot today.” Is it true, or false? If you slowly lower the temperature, half a degree at a time, when it does it magically transform from being true to false? Could it be that this statement varies in truth value depending on who is saying it? Could it be that statements can be approximately true, or somewhat true and somewhat false, or true depending on context, depending on who is speaking, who is listening?

Yes, obviously. It’s amazingly, painfully clear that ordinary use of language and concepts can’t possibly map neatly onto propositional, mathematical logic. Propositional logic is an idealized system, it doesn’t relate directly to the way we think or communicate in everyday terms.

I made this argument and my classmate indicated that my arguments seemed quite intriguing, though I wasn’t sure if he was convinced or not. Interestingly, four years later I ran into him in Palo Alto — he was going to grad school at Stanford. He greeted me very warmly, and we got into a conversation about logic and AI. It turned out that he had graduated from Harvard summa cum laude after writing his thesis: on fuzzy logic! I was glad he had found my argument at least somewhat persuasive.

Of course, interestingly, we went on to discuss AI some more, and I was telling him that I thought neural network models were quite promising. He thought that was interesting, but he challenged me: doesn’t it seem as though our thought process is inherently serial, not massively parallel? So I said, okay, but right now, you’re seeing, you’re hearing, you’re feeling the wind on your skin, you’re talking, all at once. Isn’t that obviously massively parallel? He had to agree.

The interesting thing about all this is that we have a cognitive habit which is deeply ingrained: we create internal models which simplify things in some way, which make it easier to think about things conceptually, and then we make the fundamental error of conflating the map with the territory. Of course, any map must necessarily be a simplification of reality in order for it to be useful; but it is inherently a simplification, that is to say, it must leave out massive amounts of detail. As Borges alluded in “On Exactitude in Science“:

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.

Leaving out details is of course necessary for information processing; but it is incredibly sloppy and rationally inexcusable to forget that this is what any conceptual system does.

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June 6th, 2010

Doubt is often used in a perjorative sense: that is, many religions, for example, place “doubt” in opposition to “faith” — and even in ordinary psychology, people often think of doubt in a negative way, as in self-doubt, and so on. But from a Buddhist, particularly Zen, perspective there’s another way of looking at doubt, which is more a questioning of ordinary assumptions we tend to make about the world, about our existential condition, but one can use this in not a negative but rather a constructive sense.

The sort of doubt I am talking about is essentially: doubt that the surface impression you have of the world, of your idea of who you are, what your position is in the world, etc., is the whole story. For example, you might think that your life is at a dead end, that you have exhausted all options, or that certain situations are intolerable for various reasons, unworkable. But there’s a form a doubt which is to say: check again. Are you really sure about that?

This is a kind of liberating doubt; the doubt of the scientist, who takes every hypothesis provisionally, who has a sort of skepticism that she has ever reached the final story.

If you pursue this doubt to its utmost, it actually deconstructs everything we ordinarily use to prop up our world, so that there is nothing left to lean on: except the fundamental universal ground of being. And when you get to that you realize that this can never be taken away; it is complete and sustaining and inexhaustible. It doesn’t need anything and is beyond time and conditions, while not being separated from time and conditions.

And this can lead you to an unshakable confidence. This great doubt is then the same as ultimate confidence. Rather than a confidence based on believing in tenets or dogma, hoping for this or that story to be true, it is a confidence that doesn’t depend on belief, but rather a thoroughgoing checking and re-checking of our existential condition which takes apart every individual thing while repositioning them in the context of the always already present, vast, inconceivable, timeless, supportive, and irreducible ground of being.

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May 23rd, 2010

There’s a long history of realism vs anti-realism in philosophy (both in the West and in the East), but recently there’s been an upsurge of interest in “Speculative Realism“, which is the latest pendulum swing back towards realism. As I’ve written before (also: here), I have sympathy with the idea that we can, in some sense, talk about reality, but I nevertheless take grave issue with much of what currently comes under the rubric of SR, particularly what’s now being called “object-oriented” philosophy. My old friend Liz Losh recently wrote an epic series of posts about the recent conference about the opening of the Richard Rorty Archive last week, and in her last post on the subject she talked about Michael Bérubé’s remarks regarding the nature of scientific truths in his closing talk, which Bérubé summarized here:

This time I merely claimed that human deliberations about Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation involve intersubjective agreement, but it’s intersubjective agreement about the not-human.  That doesn’t make it any more “foundational” than human deliberations about justice or beauty, but it does mean that when Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation are disclosed to us, we have to understand them precisely as entities which beforehand already were.  Just like Heidegger says in section 44 of Being and Time:

Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever—these are true only so long as Dasein is.  Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. . . .  To say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false, cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws.  Through Newton the laws became true; and with them, entities became accessible in themselves to Dasein.  Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.

I have been mulling over that passage for 25 years now, and that’s part of what my Rorty Story is about.  But first, let me make clear to Dave and everyone of like-Dave mind that in talking about these entities-which-beforehand-already-were I am not (as I said at the conference) indulging in any Stupid Realist Tricks.  First, I am not suggesting that physics is not a language, that it gives us direct unmediated access to the way the natural world would describe itself if it could; on the contrary, I keep harping on the cosmic microwave background radiation because (a) it’s really important, being physical evidence of the Big Bang, and (b) its discovery involved a Latourian network of scientists, wherein one guy realized that the inadvertent finding made by other guys just might be related to this other guy’s unpublished paper.  (Details.) Second, I imply no teleology, no sense that discoveries in physics are moving us somewhere progressively and incrementally, and that someday we’ll finally get it right once and for all; on the contrary, I strongly suspect it’s quantum turtles all the way down, in all the extant universes.  And last, I am not suggesting that the kind of knowledge we obtain from physics is a template for all other kinds of human knowledge, that it affords us a model of the way we could deliberate about justice or beauty if we just tried hard enough; on the contrary, I’m saying that it’s a highly specialized and ungeneralizable kind of knowledge that involves intricate interpretive protocols for understanding stuff that isn’t Dasein and doesn’t have Dasein’s interpretive protocols.

So Bérubé here makes a decent attempt to qualify his remarks regarding these “entities which beforehand already were”, but I have to say I think he doesn’t go far enough. In fact, I think Heidegger’s original statement, which he quotes, has some serious problems: I want to propose a different sense of reference which I think in some sense attempts to bridge the gap between realism and anti-realism.

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May 20th, 2010

I am in general opposed to Conservatives, and prior to the British election I was, as an American fascinated with Westminster parliamentary governments for some reason, rooting for the Liberal Democrats to win enough support together with Labour to be able to form a coalition. I have to say, however, despite my reflexive dislike for conservative politics, I’ve been surprised and impressed with Cameron’s political moves so far. Unlike Labour and most other Conservatives he seems to really have realized that he fundamentally did not win the last election and had no choice but to depend on the Lib Dems for his government to have a chance at working, and realized he had to go all in or be defeated. This is something I did not expect from him. In the calculus of the aftermath of the election I was arguing that the Tories lost: all Conservative MPs plus all their natural allies together added up to a minority. They absolutely needed the Lib Dems and any move on the Tories’ part to do something unacceptable to the Lib Dems would have resulted in the fall of government, which could well have happened rather quickly, particularly after the budget cuts had sunk in, giving Cameron the chance to be Prime Minister just long enough to lose control of Parliament again.

But instead he recognized, unlike most, that he had lost, and realized he needed to move decisively to bring the Lib Dems on board. And it appears he’s not only done this but he actually seems to relish, for the most part, where coalition policy has ended up. In his first interview on the BBC he spoke with apparent enthusiasm about the fact that the coalition wanted to lower taxes on the poor and raise them on the wealthy, despite the fact that this was in contradiction to his own party’s platform — something the interviewer picked up on, suggesting that the alliance with the Lib Dems was allowing Cameron to pull his party to where he had wanted it to go all along. Perhaps it’s all an act and it will fall apart soon, or perhaps the backbenchers will scuttle the coalition before too long, but so far it’s been interesting and surprising to watch this.

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May 11th, 2010

I was right that the Lib Dems would see a deal with Labour as far better than a deal with the Tories, and that events would conspire to move things in that direction. However, I was wrong that I thought Labour would be smart enough to accept such a deal to form a long-term center-left coalition politics. It seems obvious that a real Lib Dem-Labour deal would have resulted in a long-term realignment of politics and policies in favor of the center-left, and it would have changed the face of British politics — with proportional representation, the office of the Prime Minister would have alternated between Labour and the Liberal Democrats far into the future, and would certainly have resulted in locking the Tories out for a long time. But instead, Labour decides they’d rather stick to the first past the post system so they have a chance of taking full power again when the political pendulum swings back.

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