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December 31, 1999

Well, today (New Year's Eve) is the day we find out whether the Y2K crisis will have any sort of major systemic impact on our civilization. Y2K will begin to hit at the International Date Line, many hours before it hits Europe and then the United States. As I am writing this, it is still about an hour before midnight in eastern New Zealand, and thus an hour before we find out for the first time whether this will turn out to be nothing at all, a minor annoyance, or a major snafu. By the time you're reading this (if you can read this!) the Y2K line will have probably already travelled a considerable way around the world, so we'll already know from news reports (or the lack thereof) what the impact of this will be.

Morning Update: looks like hardly any impact in either New Zealand or Australia --- and midnight about to pass in Tokyo... fizzle! The only Y2K fireworks so far seem to be of the intentional variety.

December 24, 1999

Had a conversation with my brother about implicit learning. Studies have shown that people can learn tasks without having explicit knowledge of what it is they have learned. For example, in one well-known case, people were shown a sequence of lights and asked to try to anticipate which would light up next. Unknown to the participants, there was a complex, semi-random pattern to the lights. When interviewed, the participants expressed no conscious knowledge of any pattern, yet over time they nevertheless got better at predicting the sequence. They claimed that after a while they would get a "feel" for the machine, even though they were unable to express exactly what that was.

There is power to explicit knowledge, but we also seem to have this ability to get a sense for complex hidden patterns in the world, whether we know about it or not. Certain patterns may be too diffuse, complex, or uncertain to formulate into clear rules, yet we can still learn about them unconsciously or semi-consciously, and improve our ability to deal with the world.

December 19, 1999

Went to a party yesterday; Jen (recently back from the Peace Corps in Cameroon) came with her friends Sara and Gaston; Gaston happens to be from Cameroon. At the party he danced heartily and quite intensely with a large number of women there; by Cameroonian standards this is quite normal, and not meant as a sexual come-on, but the American women tended to interpret his actions sexually, and in general they seemed to like it very much. One woman in particular was reportedly "all over" him, and eventually Gaston had to sort of get her to cool it, because she was crossing even his Cameroonian boundaries. There was much gossiping about his dancing. Jen explained to me that his dancing was totally normal for Cameroon (she said Cameroonian men and women dance with everyone that way).

Some people found it difficult to believe that he was even from Cameroon; they speculated that he might really be from New Jersey. When Jen told him about this he decided to start introducing himself at the next party he went to by saying, "Hello, my name is Gaston, I'm from New Jersey."

Jen and I spoke later about differing cultural standards, and how uptight we tend to be here when we dance. In Cameroon, apparently, when people party, they tend to party literally all night, and as mentioned above, are very physically demonstrative when doing so. Jen said she actually went dancing practically every weekend when she was there. Gaston has decided to just keep dancing the way he always has, even though he knows that people tend to dance much more stiffly here.

Also spent a little bit of time speaking with the brother of my friend Ellen. He's an aspiring writer. He dropped out of college (though he was having no trouble there) in the middle of his junior year, in order to focus on his work (much to the horror of his family). Now he wants to spend five months in Michigan just to write. I later told Ellen that I feel strongly that people ought to follow their dreams; if he doesn't at least try to make a go of it now, he will certainly regret it later. It's hard to be an artist or a writer, but if he felt strongly enough about it to drop out of college, he's got the determination, and that's a necessary ingredient. What he's trying to do is difficult but that's not a reason not to do what he really wants to do; it's just a reason for him to stay with it even when the inevitable difficulties happen.

December 14, 1999

In reference to my last entry, David sends me a link to a review of The Invention of Tradition, on this subject. For example, the book notes that the kilt was actually invented by an Englishman in 1730, and also discusses the invention of many other traditions in other cultures and places.

This whole subject reminds me of the time when I lived in a group house in Berkeley. When we moved in, we purchased some old furniture and a washer-dryer together at some garage sales and thrift stores. To pay for this, we invented what we called the "furniture deposit"; when anyone in the house moved out, they would get their portion of this "deposit" refunded, and the new person moving in would pay the deposit.

Several years after we moved out, a couple of us went back to visit. The house was still being occupied as a group house. The current residents let us in and we looked around and they were still using the same furniture. None of them knew how the house had started, who had bought the furniture, etc. What's more, however, they were still collecting the furniture deposit and dutifully refunding it to people when they left, but they didn't have any idea why; they just did it because that's how they had "always" done it. We explained to them the mysterious origins of that particular ritual; they were amused and surprised.

December 12, 1999

Martin tells me that many supposedly Scottish rituals were actually invented by the English, such as competitive Highland dancing, made up during the Highland revival of Victorian Britain, apparently. I started thinking about traditions and how they tend to become weirdly self-perpetuating because of the news that the Empress of Japan is apparently with child.

My first thought was, "poor child!" I'm not one of those virulently anti-Imperial Family folks, mind you. I mean, my own family traces its lineage back to the Imperial Family, to the Emperor Seiwa. But the Imperial Family of today bears a heavy burden to carry on this ancient symbolism. Their every move is regulated by the Imperial Household Agency. They are powerless to live their lives freely, yet they hold no political power, either.

There was a time, a little less than a thousand years ago, when being Emperor actually meant something. Since then, however, governments have been run by a succession of different leaders, all of whom paid lip service to the idea of the Emperor, but who reigned entirely independently of them. By the mid-nineteenth century, many peasants didn't even know there was an Emperor. Then, a revolution happened, and to legitimize it, they resurrected the old legends around the Imperial Family and brought them back into official prominence (although they still ended up serving little more than a ceremonial function).

So almost all of what is currently thought to be the ancient tradition and ceremony surrounding the Imperial Household was really just sort of resurrected, like competitive Highland Dancing in Scotland, about a hundred and thirty years ago. That's not very long by Japanese historical standards, yet people act as though all this stuff surrounding the Emperor has been ongoing practically forever. Yet just last century the Imperial Family was in near total eclipse.

It really isn't a great fate to be Emperor of Japan. A family literally trapped by the forces of tradition, which in Japan can really be nearly crushing.

December 9, 1999

I am so glad that Heather Anne turns out to be alive (last sentence in December 8 entry). I really was getting to be worried! Heather Anne is now in Los Angeles, where I just was and will be again soon, and she is supposed to be there for a week, which means she is scheduled to leave just before I arrive. Arrgh!

Furthermore, I will be travelling to New York, and I have no guarantee that she will be there then either. Oh well.

Lara, a friend of Jen's, works for Literary Arts here in Portland, an organization that puts on a well-known lecture series, among other things. She invited us to see a lecture tonight by Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction. As both of those novels have recently been made into films, he decided to make the subject of his talk the curious difference between the Hollywood of old, despised or barely tolerated by writers like Hemingway, and the new film world, which seems to be a much more friendly environment for literary writers, who not only are having pleasant experiences having their work turned into film, but who are sometimes also becoming screenwriters and even directors themselves, without feeling that they are necessarily having to compromise the quality of their work.

He argued that the main reason for this is the rise of the independent film industry. He also cited the lowering production costs enabled by digital technology. In The Sweet Hereafter, for example, the scene of the dramatic bus crash was constructed on a computer for a fraction of the cost it would have taken to actually shoot that scene. He also cited films like The Celebration, and he believes the trend towards putting more power in the hands of independent filmmakers for less and less money will only accelerate.

December 8, 1999

Been having a lot of conversations about the inconceivable. We can't conceive the inconceivable, but it is obvious that there is that which cannot be conceived. For example, just consider everything that is happening in our bodies right now: we can't possibly conceive it all, the operation of every last cell, every capillary, every organ. Not to mention the inconceivability of what goes on in our minds beneath the surface of consciousness.

But the conversations are not just about the inconceivable, but rather also about the intrusion, as it were, of the inconceivable into our picture of the world. It isn't really an intrusion at all: we build our little pictures and try to fortify them against the unknown, but the unknown always steals in, unbidden and unexpectedly. We can choose to ignore it or we can choose to notice how it frays the edges of our seemingly comfortable worlds, the places where we feel we can sleep without worry. What we should be worried about is the fact that we are asleep and we don't know it. At the very least we ought to know it.

So what is this intrusion of the inconceivable? We try to force the world to conform to our pictures, but the world, reality, is beyond us, and always must be. Yet we can open up to it, be prepared to notice all of the contradictions, be ready to see and feel what is actually happening around us at any given moment. We can't really know the unknown (though we can know shadows and reflections and fragments) but we can try to wake up from our dreamworld. We can surf the unknown. This is kind of related to what I was talking about last month regarding finding a source of movement and engagement with the world which goes beyond small conceptualized goals.

December 4, 1999

Been a bit under the weather; haven't quite had the energy to write entries here this week.

Yesterday, Miranda July came over and spent the afternoon transferring video clips to DV and then capturing some stills on my new nonlinear video editing box. We had a very pleasant afternoon looking at clips and chatting about various subjects from failed million-dollar interactive video projects to boyfriends and girlfriends, sexual freedom and some of its limits, and the different communication styles of men and women. It was fun.