synthetic zero


December 30, 2003 (b)

Hey everybody, check out my cool new favorite weblogs page. In the past only the weblogs in the Generosity Pack were being tracked (in terms of dates of last update), but now every weblog in my list is being tracked. I wrote a PHP/MySQL script to do it. If you'd like to post a similar list of weblogs-tracked-by-date-modified, contact me and I will send you the requisite PHP script.

December 30, 2003

David was visiting and mentioned yet another thing to worry about: the Yellowstone supervolcano.

Susan and I saw Paycheck tonight --- while it has gotten pretty negative reviews, I have to say both of us kind of liked it. A decent action thriller with subpar acting from Affleck and Thurman, but overall enjoyable and I really liked the time travel/memory erasure themes.

December 26, 2003

I'm not a Christian, yet I've always celebrated Christmas with my family --- being Japanese we kind of view all these holidays with a sort of gentle distance; neither embracing their religious flavor nor feeling the need to reject them for religious reasons, since the whole subject seemed sort of unrelated to us. They just seem like a nice American custom, and so we celebrate it. The reality is, the holiday never seemed particularly religious anyway; almost all of the symbols of Christmas aren't really Christian: the tree, Santa Claus, the Yule log, etc.; they're actually pagan in origin, and the holiday really comes originally from the winter solstice celebrations of old.

I suppose it's stories like A Christmas Carol that really symbolize Christmas for me more than any more explicitly Christian story --- a man, at the end of his life, suddenly finding redemption in compassion, generosity, and kindness, rediscovering something he once had in his youth. I always like those last-minute realizations. Better late than never.

Speaking of realizations and redemption, I felt I should outline my argument against the Iraq war once again, in brief summary, though I've made it before in these pages at length, because I realized recently that some of these things which seem so transparently obvious to me aren't actually quite so obvious to everybody. There are many places one can find these arguments, including for example at the libertarian, and thus usually Republican-leaning, Cato Institute, but I'll list them out here, step by step.

1. Iraq, though led by a hateful tyrant, was nevertheless a state, and a state led by a ruthless and brutal but not particularly ideological leader, Saddam Hussein. States led by nonideological (i.e., non-suicidal) leaders can be deterred by ordinary military means, because one can attack a state with a conventional military force, and the state has much to lose. In other words, Saddam was deterrable in the classic sense of the word, and he therefore could not ever have publicly lent his military power, such as it was (and we now know it was even less than one might have feared) to an attack against the United States (i.e., us). (To those who claimed that Hussein was "prone to risky ventures", all I can say is, he hadn't tried anything at all for ten years, and with Kuwait he had reason to believe our resolve might have faltered then. But attacking Kuwait is very different from attacking the United States; even Hussein was not insane enough to think we would not have wiped him off the face of the earth, with the rest of the world cheering us on, if had he actually attacked us head-on.)

2. Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons or even an active nuclear weapons program, and he could not have developed one without us finding out about it, given the level of scrutiny he was under. He didn't even reactivate what little nuclear program he had after the inspectors left in 1998 --- and the UN was planning to have a permanent, ongoing weapons inspection program in place in Iraq.

3. Chemical and biological weapons have had little effectiveness in practice either for military or terrorist purposes. Conventional weapons are, pound for pound, just as effective as chemical weapons, and biological weapons suffer from many difficulties in terms of weaponization and delivery. In short, even had Saddam had these weapons stocks, they would have hardly afforded him much advantage against us, even if he could have used them (but see 1).

4. Iraq is not Germany or Japan, which were states that were highly organized and unified prior to their surrender. Iraq is a fractured multi-ethnic state with little history of self-organization; one that has suffered under a brutal dictatorial regime for decades. The idea that one can swoop in and institute a stable pro-Western democracy in the blink of an eye is ludicrous. Furthermore, to compare the current post-war chaos with what happened in Germany and Japan is specious --- the total number of American combat deaths after the surrender in those situations was zero. The situation in Iraq is far, far worse than in either of those cases.

5. There is no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein ever cooperated with Al Qaeda in a major way, and there is every reason to believe he never would have. Though united by a common hatred of the United States, Saddam Hussein was an apostate in the eyes of the religious zealots who run Al Qaeda, and therefore subject to the death penalty in the long run. A man like Hussein who didn't even trust his own army would hardly have trusted an ideologically-driven group like Al Qaeda with any significant weapons --- weapons which they would have as likely used against him (eventually) as against us. (All of this in addition to the fact that Hussein didn't even have weapons to give to Al Qaeda).

6. Spending SO much money, time, effort, blood, and international political capital on this effort against Iraq merely distracts us from the real war against Al Qaeda, the real need to establish stability in Afghanistan and other countries, and the far more grave threats from countries such as North Korea. We can ill-afford this level of military unreadiness at a time like this, yet we've wasted a huge amount of effort on a war that has little to do with the actual task at hand.

7. The war on terror is an information war. To rectify the situation you have to help convince the rest of the world that reform in Arab and Muslim nations is something that the Arabs and Muslims themselves want, for their own reasons. To go in and force it upon them, no matter how well-deserved the forcing might have been in the case of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is precisely NOT the message or image we need in a terrorist fight. The terrorists have already used this as a way of increasing their strength. We have engaged in this war in perhaps the worst possible way when it comes to public perception: rather than appearing a reluctant aggressor, forced into battle, we have done everything to make it appear we wanted this fight no matter what the evidence, and we've gone in and proven that whatever "evidence" we had highlighted prior to the war was, at best, wrong, and at worst, a deception. The Afghan war was different: it really appeared that the local population for the most part wanted the Taliban gone. But in this case, we have far less universal support, particularly in the Sunni part of the country. Further, we have little international support. That's not the way to win a terror war.

I apologize for repeating points I have made before, but I felt they bore repeating in one single concise list.


December 21, 2003

Went to a party at Estee Pierce's loft in Williamsburg last night. Met a variety of interesting people, found out about a $5 push hands club in midtown Manhattan, had a lot of involved conversations, and in general had a pretty good time. Khaela Maricich came by later that evening to give me a video projector to return to our friend Miranda July, and we hung out, briefly. Oddly enough Khaela, who was visiting New York from Olympia, has a best friend, Arianna, who, it turns out, lives downstairs from Estee, and so Khaela knew some of the people at the party, though I was the one who told her about it. Small world.

Monday: to Los Angeles.

Asha's weblog is looking good; she just started it several days ago. I like the design. (Click on the upper left corner to see earlier entries).

December 19, 2003

The next event at our loft will be a little sooner than I had originally thought --- February 4, 2003, to coincide with the Bronx Arts Trolley which is going to stop here on its route. We will have an encore event on Saturday, February 7.

December 16, 2003

Sent to me by George Weissmann: The Meatrix.

I was watching a documentary about Marshall McLuhan this afternoon --- I remember reading one of his books when I was a kid, and hearing about him from my parents. The odd thing is that many of his predictions and insights didn't fully come to pass while he was alive --- yet now, during the age of the Internet, his thinking seems oddly appropriate, despite the fact that the medium is now, again, primarily textual and asynchronous, instead of audio-visual, and thus, many of his ideas need some reworking to apply to the new situation. Still, he was remarkably prescient... one quote from the film really stood out:

Any electric environment has the major characteristics of TV. That is, characteristics of total involvement. When everybody becomes totally involved in everybody, how is one to establish identity? Quest for identity is a central aspect of the electric age.

...Violence is the only means by which people have ever learned how to assert or define identity... Terrorists, hijackers ... these are people, minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.

It was then it struck me, the problem with the "war on terror" as it has been fought by this Administration... something I have been trying to articulate for some time but suddenly it came clear to me exactly how one can express the problem: these guys are fighting with the wrong metaphors. Bush et al are trying to fight an information era war using World War II metaphors. They talk about a new type of war, yet they think in terms of an old style war. This isn't going to be effective, to say the least.

December 15, 2003

Well, they finally captured Saddam Hussein, and I have to say I am glad we got the guy. He's a murderous ex-tyrant who deserves to be put on trial for his crimes. What's more, it's a moment of comic relief in a long year of tragedy and disaster. However, it seems unlikely to me that his capture will put much of a dent in the Iraqi resistance. Only the most naive of the resistance fighters could have seriously believed that restoring Saddam to power was a realistic goal. Though some of them used Saddam as a symbol, the primary motivation seemed to be anti-occupation rather than pro-Saddam. Now that Saddam is out of the picture, our enemies can unite behind a single theme (anti-occupation, anti-US) rather than an uneasy mix of anti-Americanism and pro-Saddam. It's actually rather amusing that we seem to believe that the capture of Saddam has resulted in something akin to an "end" to this war --- the reasons for our troubles in Iraq have always had almost nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Even had we killed Saddam Hussein early in the war, it seems unlikely to me the aftermath would have unfolded much differently. It is doubtful that Saddam had much operational control over the resistance. The one plus here from a security perspective is that people will be more willing to speak out and inform on the resistance --- but the minus is that the resistance will no longer have a symbol whom most Iraqis despise --- which means that it could in the long run, provided we keep making major mistakes in Iraq, ultimately work to our disadvantage, ironically enough. Iraqis who resented our invasion but didn't want to work to help Saddam now have one less reason not to join the fight against us. Given the absolutely horrible way this administration has handled the war on terror in the last year, I wouldn't be surprised if they manage to turn this small victory into a liability as well.

December 14, 2003

I was thinking recently about the paradox of confidence. There have been a variety of efforts made to boost the self-esteem of students, and this has not led to an increase in their academic success. I think perhaps the problem is that self-confidence or self-esteem can come in two quite different forms: confidence in one's pre-existing "ability" and confidence that you can work with a new/difficult/problematic situation. The two forms of confidence even work at cross-purposes; if you think highly of your pre-existing ability, and you run into difficulties, you may decide to give up or blame some external factors (leading to a sense of powerlessness) --- i.e., since you're "good" yet you failed, it must be due to circumstances beyond your control. Confidence that you can figure things out is quite different, however --- when facing a difficulty, one sees this merely as evidence that you have to learn something new, that you have to adjust your strategy, that you might need to adapt to a situation you hadn't really worked with before. In order for that to work well, you actually have to have humility. In a way it's the difference between confidence in the past/known and confidence in the future/unknown. The latter type of confidence I would call being grounded in emptiness/nothingness, which is, for me, the most secure foundation I can think of. It has this flavor: it doesn't depend on anything, and therefore it is maximally secure. You could also call it confidence in the "don't know" --- not trying to control every outcome, but rather being constantly open to the possibilities of the unknown.

Last night's encore event went very well! Though not everyone who promised to come, came (ahem), enough people showed to make me very glad we had another one to compensate for the successful, yet snowbound, previous week. I feel particularly happy after these events; it feels as though I am getting closer to the world I really want to live in. It's given me a lot of new ideas about things I want to make, actually.

Tiffany wrote to me about a very strange thing that Google AdWords did to her friend: bascially cancelling his AdWords ads because he has writing on his site critical of George Bush. Further research shows that Google AdSense is terminating sites that speak critically of Google AdSense. This is apparently a big story already. It's too bad, I kind of liked Google, the company, prior to this --- these shenanigans really cross the line, however.

December 7, 2003

The first loft event went fantastically well; despite the snow, a lot of people showed up. I am quite happy with the quality of the work we presented, including the films, drawings, paintings, sculpture, and performance. It was also a great time to hang out and socialize with lots of interesting folk --- I had thought beforehand that there might be too many people, but in fact it was quite possible to have good conversations with quite a few people. We are having an encore event this Saturday because some people were unable to attend due to the snow. Please tell your friends about it. And if you want to present something at a future event, let us know.

My visit to Toronto was also very enjoyable --- I met both Asha and Jules. Spent the evening with Asha listening to Jazz at The Rex, and the next day met Jules and hung out at a cafe. Wish I had more time to spend in Toronto, I enjoy Canada quite a bit.

Meanwhile, we're going to organize a weekly meditation here at the loft. Probably just something short, like a couple of 20- or 30-minute sitting sessions. If you're interested in attending, let me know.

December 2, 2003

Some links culled from Jules' blog, Lonetreepoint:

Yuko Shimizu's alphabet book project

Amy Davis' fashion illustrations

Kim Jong Il's LiveJournal

Simpson's commercial in Japan

Here's something useful I found: interactive map of Toronto which includes the option to overlay the subway stations.

I'm really looking forward to visiting Toronto. There's something you have to like about a country about which it can be said, "You can be a social conservative in the U.S. without being a wacko. Not in Canada." (Chris Ragan, economist at McGill University, as quoted in this New York Times article.) But it's not just that --- I just get this feeling that Canada is acquiring a European, yet distinctive, cool. Or maybe it's always had it and I just hadn't noticed it before.