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April 30, 2001

Ruthie's Double asked me for my opinion about decision-making yesterday, which got me to thinking about the subject.

Proposed clues for a private detective in search of better decision-making:

  • Consider the possibility that we're already doing what we need to do to get to the bottom of decision-making, except we are adding extra stuff on top. Clue: try moving in the direction of decreasing rather than increasing. Try to add nothing extra.
  • Imagine that you cannot find this fundamental quality of decision-making in any single idea or place in your mind or body, but it includes everything in your mind and body. Clue: try leaving out nothing at all.
  • Look into paying particular attention to the little cracks in your view of the world, the things that don't seem to quite fit. Clue: be on the lookout for anomalies.
  • Consider the possibility that your biggest obstacles are not things that are far from you, but rather things which are incredibly close to you but you systematically fail to see them. Clue: if you start to uncover things that you realize have always been closer to you than the nose on your face, you may be on the right track.
  • Keep in mind that the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and the factors we imagine must go into the process of making a decision are never the whole story. Clue: try to keep in mind that there is always something huge missing from every story we tell about ourselves.
  • If you find yourself moving in contradiction to the above clues, consider the possibility that you may be on the wrong track.

    April 29, 2001

    Spent the afternoon hanging out at Gracie's Birdcage, a loft space where a bunch of artists/computer folk/zine makers/etc. have a weekly brunch where people just get together and eat and chat. It's actually just this one person's space, which he's opened up to semi-public access for this and other community purposes (people sometimes come in and do video editing, or work on the computers, etc., as well). A great community-building idea. Simple, hot, and deep.

    Some of the people behind Gracie's have also been working on a collaborative Internet art site for many years: check some of the projects out on Some notable ones include Gridcosm (imagine a 3x3 grid of images submitted by anyone who wishes to log in. Once the 3x3 grid is completed, the whole image gets shrunk down and becomes the new center tile) and HyGrid (a similar idea, except you have a center square surrounded by four squares, above, top, left, and below; each time a square is filled in any of the new squares can be chosen as a new center square and the grid can be extended. The actual structure of the piece is not a flat plane, but rather a tree). To say the site is hard to navigate is an understatement, but the guys behind (originally --- but Otis College of Art and Design threatened to sue unless they changed their name) revel in their counterintuitive, difficult-to-use design. For example, check out the tiny '?' icon which can be found on most pages, which leads to their rather comprehensive, yet well-hidden, help system.

    More reasons radio sucks.

    April 28, 2001

    The ArsDigita story as told by the founder, Philip Greenspun. ArsDigita was a successful open source software services company until the founders decided to bring in some VC funds and an outside CEO. They also neglected to protect themselves by insuring that they retain majority control of the board of directors. A sad tale of naivete, typical VC bullshit and screwups (not that there aren't good VCs out there--- there are a few, but unfortunately many terrible ones), and not covering your bases by making sure you retained control of your own company.

    The Japanese had their first chance to reform themselves a decade ago with the government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, but he resigned abruptly for mysterious reasons, which I personally think had the stench of back-room pressure and possibly blackmail. The lugubrious LDP regained power and held it, ineptly, until things got horrible with the gaffe-ridden, embarrassing, intelligence-challenged, style-free, tactless, and inertia-filled administration of Prime Minister Mori. Now, with Juniciro Koizumi winning the prime ministerial position over the objections of the LDP old guard, Japan has one more chance, late though it is. The pain will be much worse now than it would have been had Hosokawa been able to complete reforms a decade ago, and I am not as sure that Koizumi has the same skills that Hosokawa had. But the incoming prime minister, who is a fan of John F. Kennedy and who is now being compared to him, at least gives Japanese people some hope. Looking back over the history of Japan you can see that Japan tends to get into ruts, but when revolutionary change is needed, it is often quite dramatic. We'll see what happens this time.

    My next project is going to be writing a simple typewriter simulator. I want to get back the sense of finality that comes with typing. Somehow I think it leads to better writing. So it will be difficult to erase (my typewriter simulator will simulate the last typewriter I owned, back in high school and my freshman year of college, which had an erase ribbon, but it was slow and could only "remember" the last ten characters you typed. If you had to erase something on a line above, you had to carefully position the platen and manually type each character to be erased).

    April 26, 2001 #2

    Ruthie's Double raises a bunch of good points regarding washing machines and other things, in response to my earlier post. Of course I didn't mean to imply that there are no negative consequences to the introduction of a change --- in fact, I think the key is that there are many connections and unintended consequences of every change. It's naive to think that one can write any sort of simple story about anything --- we live in an intricate and complex web of interrelationships.

    We tend to try to assign moral value to a specific item; i.e., is the washing machine "good" or "bad"? I don't think it's really useful to do this as a rule, however. A change might be "good" in a certain context, for certain people, when used in a specific way, under certain conditions, from a certain point of view. "Bad" in other contexts, from other points of view. What's interesting to me is simply looking at the connections, the way a change ripples out into society and civilization and the ecosystem, causing all sorts of hidden things to occur. So I think we can talk about "good" and "bad" in terms of the impact on people at a given moment in a certain context, but the larger story is that there is a complex web and it makes sense to look at as much of the web as we can (i.e., "good" and "bad" are global systems terms, not terms that really apply to elements of a system in isolation).

    What interests me about the washing machine example (which is just a hypothesis) is not whether or not the technological change was "good" or "bad" in itself, but the fact that when we envision the effect of changes, we tend to think of just the immediate effect and imagine everything else will stay more or less the same as it is now. We don't really consider the possibility that a single change will effect a series of changes that could cascade via hidden connections to something quite different from what people originally intended or imagined.

    For example, everyone knew the washing machine (and other household appliances) was supposed to save time. But we also imagined that everything else would remain constant, fixed, unchanged: housewives would stay at home, pushing buttons in the house of the future. But of course once something gets adopted (and of course the technical possibility doesn't mean the adoption --- there is often quite a bit of inertia that slows down or stops the adoption of something new), it opens up a series of possibilities which can change things in unexpected ways. These changes may be both good and bad --- but what interests me is the fact that we tend to imagine that these changes will not occur.

    Standard theories of counterfactual reasoning formalize this idea; the default concept behind counterfactual reasoning is to imagine a world in which everything is the same as it is in the actual world, with the exception of the counterfactual. I.e., "what if unicorns existed?" --- one imagines a world in which everything is the same as it is today, with the exception of a new species -- unicorns. However, a world in which unicorns really existed would have many other changes --- an evolutionary history for unicorns (why the single horn? why is it straight and not curved? Etc.) Unicorns would compete with other animals for habitat. Much would have to be different in such a world, but we tend to ignore this fact. Similarly, when a change is introduced into a system, many interconnected things can change, both for "good" and "bad". So we ought to be careful to introduce change. On the other hand, we cannot avoid unintended consequences altogether, so there is no point in trying to avoid all loss --- we will always lose something.

    What surprised me about washing machines, however, was the fact that adoption was so recent --- somehow I had assumed that most people had had washing machines at least by the 20's or so. The fact that they weren't widespread (despite having been invented near the turn of the century) until the 40's --- this is what led to my suspicion that there might have been a connection between the success of feminism and the adoption of this technology. I certainly had been predisposed to assume that there wasn't such a connection prior to learning this fact. There are lots of things we take for granted today about the way we live that have unexpected histories --- probably the reason for the popularity of Witold Rybczynski's books.

    As for making clothes, however: I hate the clothes I own, and I hate the clothes one can buy in most stores. This is a whole subject I could go on about for a while, but since I've written so much already, I think I'll stop here for today.

    April 26, 2001

    Arianna Huffington is a Republican, but I couldn't agree more strongly with her on this subject. Throwing drug offenders out of college has got to be one of the stupidest, most counter-productive policies enacted in the long, sordid, and idiotic history of the "drug war". Do something about it.

    Via Molly Steenson's Girl Wonder: Exploding Dog.

    April 24, 2001

    Just got back from Olympia where Miranda July gave a performance of a new piece that she just wrote, a "one-off" as it were; I again helped, making some graphics and editing some video clips for her. It was satisfying to help her make something so quickly, where I was able to just do the video and graphics work in two days (most of that spent trying to find and play a video game for a particular sequence in the work). As usual it was refreshing to be in Olympia.

    Ruthie's Double says this:

    I'm terrified a woman's life becomes filled with banality. Working to feed the children, laundry, housecleaning, bill paying, the preparation and clean-up of meals. I do not spend a moment on personal hygiene; thinking I'm outsmarting it! Ha! I saved 10 minutes not putting on make-up or shaving my legs! Life could take up all one's time. I'm filled with panic, much more comfortable disregarding this strange, foreign abyss of life-living. My solution: I'll make art all day, then eat dinner out in a paint stained sweatsuit. I'll never go anywhere but my studio: unless it's to a museum, gallery, movie, or lecture about art. I'll take special pride in the fact that the morning after my show opens, what do I do? Wake-up and start another one. And when this starts to feel like evasion, what do I do? ...
    It gets even better but it was the first thing she wrote, the original impetus for the whole series of thoughts, that drew my attention. Susan just did a bunch of writing for a Popular Science CD-ROM on "the most important inventions of the last millennium," which turned out to be a more illuminating assignment than it might have at first appeared. I was flabbergasted to discover that the washing machine was not in widespread use until the 1940's. The very first laundromat opened in 1935. Prior to this, unless you were rich enough to have servants or were able to take all of your clothes to a Chinese laundry, you had to wash by hand, using old fashioned washboards, a bucket, and a clothesline.

    So as recently as the 1930's, household chores took up so much time that it was very difficult if not impossible for both spouses to hold down a full-time job, which brings up the following possibility: feminism as we know it today was made possible (or made much more possible) by a technological shift --- the washing machine. If this is right, the change actually happened relatively quickly: in only one generation or so. Talk about the law of unintended consequences (in this case a good one).

    I was recently watching a documentary on the "home of the future" --- made in the 1950's. Of course, they had videophones and a pushbutton kitchen, like the Jetsons. They had a scene with the man calling his wife on the videophone asking what was for dinner. The wife told him what it was going to be, and proceeded to push a few buttons. It's almost laughable today: if all you needed to do in the kitchen was push a few buttons, why would the wife have to stay home?

    The fear of the destruction of creativity and independence associated with housework and motherhood --- this is very much stronger and more visceral in my female friends than I had realized. I grew up with a certain naive feminist presumption: men and women were now more or less equal, with some inherited physical and psychological differences, perhaps, but nothing that defined any categorical differences. But I was surprised to learn that this issue of housework and motherhood can be such a serious and dark issue for some of my female friends. Now I see: it was only a couple of generations ago that most women were limited not only by convention but also by the fact that housework literally was a full-time job. The limits really were crushing for women in many ways.

    Culture mirrors these technical limits: The House of Mirth comes to mind --- gender roles even circumscribed women in the social elite.

    Another thought. Why is it that, even today, women still end up doing more of the housework, and men are often much more slovenly (I include myself in this). Of course this is not a universal rule, but it's a common pattern. The first explanation is simply that it's lingering social convention. But then I started to think of additional factors, and then I thought about the role of culture in creating genetic selection pressure: the co-evolution of culture and genes.

    Since mating in humans is heavily circumscribed by cultural factors (those attributes seen as "attractive" can vary quite a bit as cultural norms vary), this implies that culture can have an actual genetic impact. For example, the odd fact that I retain many samurai physical characteristics, such as greater than normal speed (my dad was a track star in high school, for example), despite the fact that it has been hundreds of years since my family had a castle and hundreds more years since samurai were regularly involved in the warfare that caused the original selection pressure that preferred those traits: Japan for a long time (and even today) mated very systematically, so for hundreds of years my ancestors only intermarried with other samurai. Similarly, now that nerds are more useful to society, perhaps we'll eventually see a migration towards more nerd characteristics in the general population...

    And if domesticity is influenced by any sex-linked genes, perhaps because domesticity was valued culturally for so long, this created selection pressure in favor of more domestic-oriented women. Now, however, that women can fend for themselves, the pressure to select men with lots of money, etc., will probably lessen considerably, and perhaps the men who take care of their personal environment will also be more favored in the long run.

    April 22, 2001

    Kristin Lucas has a new show, "alias", at Postmasters.

    April 20, 2001

    On the way to T'ai Chi this morning, flower petals rained down from the air, in slow motion, in front of the car and onto the windshield. They were blowing out of the top of a garbage truck.

    April 19, 2001

    Meanwhile, over at Bovine Inversus, Demian is clearly getting into the comedy act of koans, though maybe a little light on the sit-down component (i.e., koans are supposed to be funnier if you have to sit down to get them).

    But seriously. I came across this while doing some web surfing because of debates I've been having about Sufism with a non-Sufi Muslim:

    All is the Beloved and the lover is a veil
    The Beloved is alive and the lover is dead
    -Rumi, Mathnawi
    This struck me as quite insightful. It is too bad that Sufis are sometimes persecuted in Islam (though they are also sometimes honored, there seems to be a bit of a curious confusion within Islam regarding the Sufi orders; some say they are legitimate, some claim they are heretics. Needless to say I am rather sympathetic to the Sufis).

    (Yes, I know. I'm quoting poetry.)

    Ruthie's Double plans to post her novel online, with a little button that says "support the author" for voluntary donations if you enjoyed the work. An interesting and simple notion. It's giving me ideas.

    April 18, 2001

    I'm quoting from memory here, but there was a Zen koan that started something like this:

    A monk came to his master and began to quote a poem:
    a limitless breeze across the universe...
    His master shouted "You're on the wrong track!"
    He was warning his student of the dangers of letting other people's words stand in the place of his own direct understanding.

    It's funny how often people want to rely on the words and reports of others, instead of finding out for themselves what's really up.

    Of course, I always thought it was funny to have a koan warning against relying on other people's words, when anyone quoting the koan (like I am doing here) is using other people's words. But like a good joke it's not the words but the context and the way you tell the joke, er, I mean the koan, that counts... it's not as though Zen masters are opposed to quoting poetry in general (those Zen guys are so situational...)

    Speaking of my own words: I have always thought of koans as Buddhist sit-down comedy. ha ha heh ha. <cough>

    I guess you had to be there. (heh heh...)

    April 17, 2001

    In a more than pleasant surprise, Caterina Fake emailed me a couple days ago saying she was driving through Portland with Stewart Butterfield, would I be available for lunch? And of course I enthusiastically said yes, and they arrived and we had a very fine time together. Of course, took them to Powell's, the biggest new+used bookstore in the world, and Stewart bought a grocery bag full of books; the paper handles of which finally ripped off when he added one last book (on the design of books), bought afterward at the last minute at our beloved crazy zine store a block away, Reading Frenzy. They got to see Susan's advice column in a real paper copy of the Willamette Week. I wish they'd had more time for me to show off one of my favorite cities in the world, but alas they only had a few hours to blow on us here in Portland, but it was a very good few hours.

    April 15, 2001

    Judith (Calamondin) says: "wow. don't go to the netart portal verybusy and pull the dropdown to 'INDEX A-Z: PROJECTS' unless you have hours and hours and hours and hours and..."

    Peter Merholz (Peterme) muses:

    I've recently been reading about the power of Group-Forming Networks. GFNs are "Networks that support the construction of communicating groups create value that scales exponentially with network size," says David Reed, creator of the model, in his essay "That Sneaky Exponential --- Beyond Metcalfe's Law to the Power of Community Building." This stuff has interesting relationships to the Rule of 150, which Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point -- up to 150, there is a "community memory" that works such that either you know how to find something out/do something, or you know the person who does. Beyond 150, you no longer know whom to turn to, and need to go through intermediaries, and a communication breakdown occurs. Research in cognition supports this, primarily Robin Dunbar's work written up in Grooming, Gossip, and The Evolution of Language.
    Which reminded me of a number of thoughts I've had over the years about group and network formation and in particular group sizes. Of course, the activity we're involved with here and now, weblogging, is the epitome of a group-forming exercise; every weblog, particularly when we link to each other, can be the launch point of a new network of associations, people, ideas --- weblogs are an easy way to connect. Furthermore, these connections are self-organizing; we read the weblogs we enjoy reading, and thus the sorts of flame wars that plague USENET and other online "communities" are more muted here (though not nonexistent) --- it's easy to get on someone's good side by simply linking to them, and furthermore if someone really hates what you're writing, it is likely they'll just stop reading you, rather than waste time posting about how much they dislike you. (Though of course this still happens).

    I've thought about other community scales, and I emailed Peter that I have also noticed a "rule of 10" and a "rule of 30" ... The rule of 30 is that 30 people seems to be the limit of people you can associate with closely at any given moment... I recall when I lived in a coop in college, it was about 35 people, and I felt I knew everyone in the coop quite well. But my friends who lived in larger coops found they tended to break into smaller cliques. The rule of 10 is... this seems to be the limit to the size of a tight-knit development team. I think larger organizations can be built with these general sizes in mind; teams of ten or fewer people networked together into larger groups; tightly-knit communities of up to 30 people or so (perhaps associations of people you've worked closely with in the past) embedded in larger associations of up to 150 people or so. Above 150 and you need to establish careful conduits or interfaces between the groups to prevent too much dissipation of social attention.

    I encourage you, by the way, to start a weblog if you don't have one already.

    April 14, 2001

    Sad Face
    Smiley No More.

    The unnecessary suffering of animals in the slaughterhouse (via Metascene). It was in tenth grade I first read Thoreau, who mused that he felt that he might eventually decide to stop eating meat, but he didn't have that much sympathy for fish. I thought that sounded like a good idea, so I swore off eating beef, but decided to continue eating chicken and fish. I call this my "mammal-free" policy. There was just something a bit too eerie for me, eating creatures who had relatively large brains, who were much like me in most ways. I don't really know for sure whether I "ought" to stop eating chicken also --- perhaps I will do that as well, someday.

    I've been thinking about effective and ineffective use of technology, techniques, devices. Not just technology: also devices as in literary or artistic devices. When we use a device, or a technique, or a technology, or an algorithm... if we make the technique point to itself, or be just a sign for itself, it becomes contrived; when we use technology, I think it's best to use it just as a way to funnel or guide something else, something more deeply connected, something mysterious. Otherwise the piece just becomes a sort of puzzle; a giant puzzle (or a small one!)

    On the other hand, an arbitrary constraint can create a certain pressure, a space in which the creative process can find a more, not less, intense expression. Reduce the variables and you can modulate the variation in more interesting ways.

    April 11, 2001

    Fresh and newly refreshed links for you:

    We are all exceptionally grateful that Heather Anne at Lemonyellow is writing more frequently again. Also:

    Kenneth Mroczek has been writing regularly, and

    in case you hadn't noticed, Ruthie's Double is back from her travels (though she is going away briefly once more).

    Samantha, a good friend of Heather Anne's, has started a weblog of her own, Ockham's Razor.

    Meanwhile, from my referrer logs, some of the more notable are

    Lixolux, a weblog of poetry,

    Consumptive, an art and photography themed site, and

    Ethel the Blog, a literary weblog.

    Try this Yale test of your unconscious ethnic/racial bias. A million people have taken it already.

    April 8, 2001

    This is no joke: the bankruptcy judge assigned to the PG&E case is shown here in the Los Angeles Times in a photograph --- posted without apparent humor --- above the caption "Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali is called a 'reasonable man.'" I myself feel a lot more reassured about the fate of the California power crisis with this man on the case. (I'm serious about this also!)

    My friend Doug Cutrell informed me today about something some of you may already know: don't eat orange roughy. Apparently, the orange roughy is a fish that lives for 80 years, and it doesn't reach sexual maturity until around 14 years. So this is a species that reproduces slowly, and the Australian fishing industry has pretty much decimated the orange roughy -- and it's not coming back anytime soon.

    Thinking a lot about the general versus the specific. The general: the abstract, categories, the vague ways in which we dice up the world into generalities. This is not the tree that confronts me now, it is just one of a class of trees. I do not see you, I see a person, I see someone I desire, someone I am bored by, someone I hate. We turn things into qualities, and we lose their specificity, their particularity, their uniqueness in themselves.

    On the other hand, when we think about our lives we often fall into the trap of trying to micromanage our existence, trying to control all the details, far into the future, or at least those details that we imagine are crucial to our well-being. We become obsessed with the best way to get ahead in the current office imbroglio, or how to win the affection of this person, or... But perhaps there is something to be said for stepping back from this control freak position: to let our choosing faculty relax in its tendency to try to determine the outcome, but rather just monitor the overall feeling, the color and tenor of the energy of our lives --- and in this way, oddly, to give the details of the world the space to come forward to greet us in all their glory. In other words, we can fade the control freak back, and let the world in its specific, concrete way present itself and become itself. Kafka once said (italics added):

    You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and ordinary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

    Speaking of Kafka, I am often rather shocked to notice how many people think Kafka's The Trial has some sort of political import or is a commentary on the arbitrariness of bureaucracy... while of course his metaphors are informed by observations of the real world, it's clear to me that Kafka's book is about the fundamental existential condition of man; not only modern man (as some have suggsted), but all human beings in every time period. It's a book about the Fall; as Kafka once put it, "We are sinful not merely because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not eaten of the Tree of Life." The crime K. is accused of is the crime we are all accused of; and he is told the parable of the gatekeepers to the Law (quoted below for those of you who have not read the book):

    "Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. 'It is possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but not at the moment.' Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: 'If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.' These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished hinself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: 'I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.' During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. 'What do you want to know now?' asks the doorkeeper; 'you are insatiable.' 'Everyone strives to reach the Law,' says the man, 'so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?' The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear; 'No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.'"
    The fact is that we all have access to the Law; but if we try to gain entry, we will never be granted admittance. That is because it is impossible to gain access to the Law by dint of effort or pleading; yet it is also the case that the Law (so to speak) is open to everyone at all times. The trick is somehow to learn how to cross the threshold of the gate without ever passing through it. The Zen people call this the "gateless gate." We cannot gain entry because we do not have to go through the gate in the first place. There is another way. But we only have our lifetime to pass through the gate that is not a gate. More precisely, we only have this one moment. Luckily we keep getting the moment back again. But we don't get a second chance. Thankfully we don't even need the first chance.

    April 5, 2001

    Most of you have probably noticed that MIT is planning to put all of its course materials on-line for free.

    I think it's disgraceful that Harvard College (my alma mater) doesn't issue an unequivocal apology for firing Raymond Ginger for refusing in 1954 to tell University officials whether he had been a member of the Communist Party. What are they afraid of? A lawsuit? Not only was this action wrong, it disturbs and shocks me that Harvard can only issue a mealy-mouthed "looking back, many people would not find it appropriate" sort of pseudo-response ("many people" --- implying that honorable people could disagree? that other people, even now, could ethically think it was fine and dandy?) Where is the moral courage?

    April 2, 2001 (#2)

    The five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. This list betrays a fundamental bias, which is that every one of these "five senses," which is presumably meant to be exhaustive, involves the "sensing" of that which is external --- as though that which is inside our skin is a colorless, dimensionless point (to use a phrase I picked up from a poll I took recently...) But this list leaves out vastnesses. For example, what about our kinesthetic sense, the sense of what is happening to our own bodies, how we're holding ourselves, our proprioception, the way we feel, our internal organs? We have an odd difficulty even noticing that we are ignoring the spread out, dimensional quality of our own bodies; so much so that for us to even consider another possible sense modality, we imagine that we're talking about psychic abilities.

    It seems to me that we have a tendency to think of ourselves, in general, as dimensionless points, floating here, "observing" the world through our "sensory apparatus." But we are actually spread out, compound, multiple. Even our thoughts have a field of sources: surfacing from a vast, embodied system including our unconscious, all of which is tied in fundamentally to our physicality among other things.

    April 2, 2001

    What are the virtues and limitations of the "bohemian" life? When I was younger I had an attraction to this, and like many people I thought of it primarily as an increase in freedom, choice, a relaxation of unnecessary constraints. Later, though, I met a lot of older people, American baby boomers, for whom their early adoption of the "bohemian" had turned into a sort of excuse for bad habits, self-indulgence, and neuroses writ large --- all of their worst personality traits, untempered by socialization, simply splayed out over everyone and on everyone, each other, their loved ones, the people they lived and worked with. In some cases they re-adopted many of the asshole behaviors of the parents they had originally rejected --- but now with the rationalization of further "shocking" people. Others, on the other hand, used their freedom to more fully explore what it means to be human in a perceptive, careful, and incisive manner --- these people are real artists, or philosophers, or meditators. They didn't just use the idea of freedom to amplify their bad habits without a sense of shame, but rather they used freedom to go beyond the limitations of convention and find not just amplified habits, but something beyond habits, something in some sense more real than anything that can be explained.

    I still admire the bohemian impulse, but true freedom isn't freedom to grossly exaggerate our egos and unexamined habits, but rather it is freeing ourselves to a larger space to find something delicate and real and indescribable.