synthetic zero


December 31, 2006

Although I am on vacation, the stress of not working seems to be worse, in a way, than working --- I keep having dreams which are somehow related to all the work I could be doing. This morning it was in the form of endless math problems I was supposed to be solving. It will be a relief when I get back to work and can release all this pent up pressure. I sleep much better the more work I've done that day, oddly enough.

Tonight I saw old friends from college and high school; David Cohen, who required, let's say, some cheerleading with a personal organization project... Jenny Cool, who is starting out on her doctoral dissertation, and will soon be Dr. Cool... and Liz Losh and her husband Mel Horan dropped in while I was visiting Jenny, along with their talented kids. A good way to ring in the new year.

December 30, 2006

Saw Children of Men tonight --- a cinematographic tour de force, at the Century 15 theaters in Century City. But what I'm writing about is the theaters --- newly renovated, and super glitzy. Seeing movies in Los Angeles is somehow more intense and exciting than seeing them anywhere else. One might think that the excitement would be less in this company town, but if anything it's greater. Every movie feels like an event.

December 29, 2006

For some reason today I feel quite nervous and not at all rested, unlike yesterday.

December 28, 2006

This morning I had a dream I was kissing Scarlett Johansson. It seemed very real, very vivid, and I carried the pleasant feeling with me the whole day. What did it mean? Who knows? Did some hiking, then later in the afternoon, visited Doug and Arun with Susan, and saw some awful art. A man obsessed with what he's working on, yet strangely, he seemed mostly unaware of most of the stuff that has happened in the art world over the last hundred years. He positioned himself as a revolutionary, yet it was both mildly interesting and comically clueless. I don't really know what else to say about it, except that it seemed somehow lazy and disconnected. I feel a bit guilty, however, for being so judgemental; the man was so enthused and sincere, and what is quality, after all? He was trying so hard to communicate something. Aside from that it was a fabulous evening of conversation and food.

December 27, 2006

At this point, I use my Blockbuster Video card almost only a couple times a year --- during the holidays.

December 26, 2006

Letters from Iwo Jima was very well done, an ably constructed film that shows the war from the Japanese perspective. It's a shame that not too many Americans nor Japanese are likely to see this movie; it sheds a great deal of light on the subject. It's interesting that, as one reviewer pointed out, it's the first major film in Japanese made on the subject of Iwo Jima, and it was made by an American.

December 25, 2006

San Diego is in reality the way the movies often depict Los Angeles: laid-back, surfers, beach people, sand, bikinis, relaxed, vivid colors, lagoons, waves, ocean, ocean, ocean.

December 24, 2006

So my father wanted to upgrade his speaker system; at one point we sort of stumbled onto a store that was open on Christmas Eve, which was odd since most of the other high end stores weren't open, but this one was and they had these speakers available for a discount since they had just been replaced with a new model. They sounded fantastic, and weren't that expensive (about $1000 for the whole set). I said, "isn't it strange that we just saw this store on the street at random like that." My dad said, "of course, that's the way it works; you know I don't think things are really real, I think we're just making up this reality as we go along."

At one point, while we were driving around, out of the blue my dad started to talk about this film, Ugetsu, which is a Japanese classic. It's about these potters who leave their wives for life in the big city; one of them to try to become rich by selling his wares there, another who wants to follow a samurai. In both cases the potters learn to regret their decision and realize, too late, that they should have stayed behind with their wives to live their lives as ordinary potters. My dad started to talk about how, while in American culture they sometimes depict wealthy people as acting in an irresponsible or criminal way, they rarely have characters, as they do in Japanese culture, in which poor people are shown as strong and self-confident. Poor people in other cultures are often depicted sympathetically, but usually as victims of oppression or otherwise needing money in order to be saved or redeemed (i.e., It's a Wonderful Life) In Japanese culture, however, there are often characters who are both poor and confident, living lives which are seen to be in many ways superior to that of the wealthy or powerful, or at least, given the right levels of resourcefulness, not inferior.

December 23, 2006

Flying from New York to Los Angeles when it is 55 degrees on December 23 doesn't feel quite the same as flying to California when it is freezing and you feel like you're escaping to paradise. The constantly warm weather in the city is both comfortable and gives me a feeling of dread, as it seems a harbinger of doom...

December 22, 2006

Eros is strangely driven -- by attraction but also strangeness, by mystery but also trust, by mutuality but also tension and uncertainty. It seems to be dissipated both by too much familiarity and too much conflict, but both conflict and familiarity are essential for its continuation. Love can survive the dissipation of eros, I think, but a life together needs it...

December 21, 2006

Heather Anne has been making some remarkable porcelain ceramics recently:

Also see this and this...

She said that when she wrote about them in her journal last year, she had all sorts of thoughts about "motherless propagation, speechless creatures, families without hierarchy"... I love these creature/plant/families.

December 20, 2006

I was going over my entries regarding the Iraq war again recently... starting around February 2003; I was at the time thinking this war would be the worst foreign policy mistake in the history of the country, something that might actually undermine the very foundations of the republic; most of my misgivings about the war, mirrored by many others, have proven correct, of course, though I somehow felt relieved after Bush won reelection in 2004 --- that the worst case scenario was unlikely to happen, at that point (had Kerry won, in fact, the worst probably would have happened --- as conservatives would have blamed Kerry for the mess Iraq would have inevitably become no matter who was president, and our country would have failed to learn its lesson).

I haven't written much about Iraq recently, mostly because what was once my somewhat minority opinion has now become widespread --- but as Sue and I discussed the other day, one thing that puzzles me still about all this is why the disastrous nature of this intervention wasn't completely obvious to most people at the time. Okay, before the invasion, one can understand a little naive optimism, but even a year afterwards, as the many mistakes and strategic and tactical errors became painfully obvious, there were still many people who didn't see the monumental mistake we had made. This ought to be a prime case study in an investigation into the ways human beings can make systematic cognitive mistakes. My current hypothesis is that it has a lot to do with the well-known phenomenon of people ignoring information that violates their preconceptions; but there are probably many other interesting factors that weigh into this large a mistake.

December 19, 2006

At our company Christmas lunch today, conversation veered onto subjects such as whether or not cultural and biological evolution are part of the same process or not, or what is the nature of intentionality, whether civilizations are doomed to be short-lived (i.e., why are we not 50 million years into civilization, looking back, rather than only a few tens of thousands of years into it?), the origin of language, etc. Not exactly what one might expect at a typical tech company lunch; an interesting bunch we have for a staff.

December 18, 2006

The Holy Grail of software development is dramatically accelerating both front and back end development. Based on the ideas we've been playing with here at work, I am beginning to think it is actually possible, through a deceptively simple yet powerful approach involving abstraction and visual and cognitive metaphors. It's quite amazing what you can do with well-designed, yet outwardly seemingly simple, techniques.

December 17, 2006

Today I decided not to do anything: just stayed at home, didn't go out, just caught up with various things I'd been meaning to do over the last few months and never set aside the time. Sometimes it's relaxing not to try to exert too much effort to enjoy yourself on a Sunday.

December 16, 2006

Katharine is unbelieving that I actually think without words, but: it's really not all that hard to believe if you reflect on it. Consider the thoughts you have when you first walk into, say, a party --- you don't actually wait until your internal narrator starts to talk about what you're seeing before you have already put together a vast array of information about what you see --- the types of people in the room, perhaps some sense of their personalities, etc. Yet the narrator picks out just one tiny fragment of that and might start commenting on it ("Hmm, that guy over in the corner looks interesting. I wonder what he's eating. Maybe I'll check out the snack table.") Everyone's thoughts in general I think tend to precede language --- though I would agree that without language, it is sometimes difficult to become totally conscious of what you're thinking. Because of Katharine's objection I made an effort to verbalize certain fleeting moments of nonverbal thought, and I was surprised at the sorts of crazy free association and wild images I had --- most of which I probably would have simply forgotten, otherwise (they are often dreamlike, even when I am awake, if I really listen to them ... I look at the carpet and imagine it as the top of an infinite semitransparent column that reaches into the earth, etc.)

December 15, 2006

Battlestar Galactica, with some wobbles, remains consistently impressive.

December 14, 2006

I love The Office, and I really enjoyed the last episode of the show, A Benihana Christmas, but there was one particularly annoying thing they did which deserves to be mentioned. Much of the show takes place at Benihana, where the protagonists are shown flirting with two Asian waitresses; but then, when the action shifts back to the office, the two actresses playing the waitresses are suddenly switched for two completely different Asian actresses, with no explanation or comment. At first I thought, okay, maybe they went back to the office with different waitresses, but a comment near the end of the episode makes it fairly clear these were supposed to have been the same women all along. One of the jokes of the episode was Michael's inability to distinguish between the two waitresses --- but apparently the producers thought that the audience can't tell the difference between Asians either. It makes one feel rather uncomfortable to realize that the majority of people around you tend to think of you, at least visually, as interchangeable with other people from the same "race."

December 13, 2006

I haven't had words in my head when I am thinking ever since I purposefully dropped that when I was in the tenth grade. I've been discussing this online recently with some people, and the whole topic reminded me of this article on Virginia Woolf which I linked to back in 2000. A quote:

Woolf, like Einstein, was late in learning to speak and admitted that as an adult, words sometimes seemed like meaningless sounds to her. This suggests that, like Einstein, Woolf retained and, indeed carefully cultivated, the ability to resist formation of the simple cartoons of thought; instead she flooded her brain with the emotion and sense data of pre-thought, what is sometimes called intuition. In fact, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West she described intuition in terms of the rhythm of a deep emotion, and her description fits quite aptly Gray's and LaViolette's idea of the complex of emotional nuance that lies behind cognition. She wrote:

Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit in; and in writing... one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit in.


December 12, 2006

The Heart Sutra rarely fails to bring tears to my eyes:

...there is no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering, or of the path. There is no wisdom and no attainment whatsoever. Because there is nothing to be attained, the Bodhisattva, relying on prajnaparamita, has no obstruction.


December 11, 2006

There's something immensely satisfying about finishing a crazy short-term emergency project, even if it isn't something you want to plan to have popping up on a regular basis.

December 10, 2006

There is a strange intimacy to online chat environments --- how quickly one can feel a sense of rapport with someone you have never met and cannot see. I happen to think this might be natural and beneficial; sometimes you can make connections with people which can last a long time, and who knows, perhaps it allows serendipity and fate to play themselves out in a larger way.

December 9, 2006

Katharine asked me the other day why I find it so interesting to show other people's work; I've been doing that ever since I was in high school and I put together a zine exhibiting the writing, drawing, and photography of other people; she showed me a self-published book she made in high school of her own drawings and writing. Nowadays I put on these shows --- it's not that I don't have my own ideas I would like to share with people. I think about that quite a bit. But I suppose I find myself motivated to create spaces for interaction, for images, ideas, inspiration to flow out into the world; it helps me feel more vibrant and alive to think I am part of a larger context --- ferment --- and that means more than just being a consumer of culture but also a facilitator. But I don't want to merely make my own shows but encourage people to have a more relaxed attitude towards showing their work --- I feel other people ought to make shows, too, just for fun, with friends --- it shouldn't be just something for galleries and museums or other big institutions. Host an event in your living room, show experimental film, make art happen in your own spaces right now. It doesn't have to be something overproduced and excessive. So I want to be not only a facilitator but a catalyst for a more relaxed, more broad-based notion of curating and sharing artwork.

December 8, 2006

One day, years ago, my mom and dad and Sue and I were walking down the street in San Francisco, and Sue and I were walking ahead of them, and I saw this round loaf of bread, that had been kind of mushed on top of a fire hydrant of the same diameter, like a little cap. It was kind of funny; most likely someone had done it as a joke. However, Sue was about to touch it and I said, only half-jokingly, "Don't touch that, it might be a bomb." Of course the chances of it being a bomb were miniscule, but I figured, if someone were going to plant a bomb, that's the sort of thing they might do... My mom and dad, who had been a block or so behind us, came walking up. My dad spied the loaf of bread and said, "Don't touch that, it might be a bomb." I exclaimed to Sue: "See where I get it!"

Of course, this isn't to say that I believe one should live life avoiding all risk. In fact, I'm all in favor of taking risks when there's the potential for reward; in fact, I recall reading about a study in which participants were asked to choose between a safe and a more risky strategy, one in which the risky strategy had a much higher payoff, but a lower chance of success. It turned out that people tended to choose the safe strategy over the risky strategy until the risky strategy had double the expected payoff of the safe one --- that is to say, people usually double the apparent risk of any strategy before they're willing to try it. This is, I think, why people tend to live highly controlled, somewhat overly safe lives, not trying new things or breaking out of their ruts and habits --- even when the potential rewards are great, they overestimate cost.

Still, though, it's one thing to try things that might be risky; it's another to be gullible in exchange for potential material wealth --- as I wrote about a little while ago, the fact is money is one of those things that gives diminishing returns; it's simply not the case that, for the individual, twice as much money is always twice as good. Yet people are constantly fooled by laughably transparent scams that hinge on their greed, which is doubly stupid: not only are the scams obvious frauds, but the reward (money) isn't remotely worth the obvious up front cost. It's breathtaking to me that there could be anyone stupid and greedy enough to fall for some of these scams. I'm not claiming I could never be fooled by an elaborate con, but give me a break... (one of the victims of one of these, quite hilariously, said "I don't like being a fool" --- which is too bad, since he is a fool.)

In real life, however, there are plenty of situations in which one can play both sides: take a risk but spend a small amount for insurance against the worst case, which is sort of like leverage, in that it increases the risks you can afford to take. The tragic story of the death of James Kim (an acquaintance of an acquaintance of mine, as it happens), reminds me of this. I've actually gotten stuck more than once on those treacherous mountain roads in Oregon --- there are no signs warning you that the roads are closed or impassable in winter. However, just as a matter of habit, I always carry with me some recovery equipment: chains, a shovel, warm clothing; later, I got an all wheel drive car, tow ropes, a come-along, a jack, and a GPS. All of these items have relatively low incremental cost, and I've actually had to use all of them at different times to get myself out of a jam in the mountains. Yet, ironically, it's these little precautions that allow me to take greater risks and be more spontanous while remaining reasonably safe at very little additional cost. Small cost, large payoff in increased ability to try apparently risky things.

December 7, 2006

Pretty much as everyone probably expected, including me, the "day that will live in infamy" has faded considerably from the American imagination at this point. Maybe it will stage a bit of a comeback after the cacophony of our current ongoing disaster dies down. Somehow, though, I suspect the vividness of all the events of that time will be replaced by the consequences of what many people now unabashedly call the worst strategic mistake the United States has ever made. It's strange, because our other mistakes, like Vietnam, etc., in retrospect seem like relatively contained disasters, yet it's hard to shake the strong intuition that the people who are calling Iraq our worst mistake ever might well have it right.

I personally think it will be remembered as a mistake that could have had disastrous consequences, but I think we might be able to pull it out in the end. Not success in Iraq in the near term, but by being defeated we might find ourselves regrouping in a way which is much healthier for us in the long run. The question is: how long?

December 6, 2006

Inspiration and magic can coexist with logic. But logic should never supplant or replace magic: logic should always be used in the service of (subordinate to, supporting, and helping to bring into being the promise of) magic.

December 5, 2006

Yesterday, I felt awful, I think still from the aftereffects of jet lag (my circadian rhythm is definitely free falling forward, and I now think my "natural" bedtime is somewhere between 10am and 11am), and Heather Anne mentioned that she, too, had difficulty sleeping and felt like she had a hangover in the morning. She emailed me saying, half-jokingly, that maybe her insomnia was somehow in sympathy with me. What if it were really the case that even when we think we're in private, at home, our friends and loved ones actually can be affected by what we think, feel, and do? What if the effects of our inner or private lives can't be entirely hidden or masked from others? It's both comforting and a bit scary to think that we might not be entirely independent of the world around us; it would have big implications if it were really true --- what we do in private, even what we think and feel in our own minds --- what if it affects the world around us, the people around us, more than we might imagine?

December 4, 2006

For some reason I'd always visualized Ohio as being very far away ... yet, in fact, cities like Akron are only six and a half hours away from New York by car. It's just the next state over after Pennsylvania.

December 3, 2006

This is really quite interesting --- apparently physicists now believe that information is not destroyed when things fall into black holes --- and what's more that things can be in "two places at once" --- I think there are some fundamental issues that go along with this, which have to do with the relationship between the observer and information:

According to his theory, a black hole, like everything else, has an alter ego living on the boundary of the universe. Black hole evaporation, it turns out, corresponds to quantum particles interacting on this boundary. Since no information loss can occur in a swarm of ordinary quantum particles, there can be no mysterious information loss in a black hole either. "The boundary theory respects the rules of quantum mechanics," says Maldacena. "It keeps track of all the information."


December 2, 2006

Walking through the Strand today, we were looking at various art books --- I kept wanting to find a particular kind of book, something that would transgress boundaries, that would be illuminating, exciting, that would open up new possibilities, suggest new worlds ... but I couldn't find that book. Here and there would be a cover, a theme, a look that would seem promising, and there were some that really seemed to deliver on their promise (such as Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels...) but none that had all the qualities I was hoping for; something that pointed in between the known and the unknown, the logical and the sublime. Of course, it's one of those things: I'm not sure what I'm looking for but I have a feeling I'd know it when I saw it.

Then I thought, I shouldn't be so lazy: I should write that book myself... (file this under one of the many things I should do ... someday).

December 1, 2006

I think while I was in London my circadian rhythm just freely cycled forward (as it sometimes does if you attempt to shift it too suddenly), so I am now completely out of phase with the normal day in New York. I'm not quite sure what to do about this other than be totally bleary and exhausted during the day. Perhaps I will try taking some melatonin tomorrow evening...