synthetic zero


February 15, 2002

I got the following email from my dad today:


I picked up Taichi Sakaiya's book, What Is Japan, the other day. Been meaning to read it since it was translated to English as I heard good things about it. The guy is very smart, simplifies Japan in ways not many have (because Japanese especially don't understand Japan: the book was written for the Japanese originally I think). If you have not read it already, I suggest you do so. He's very critical of Japan but also sees its strengths as well. You can't really take out the weak parts without affecting the strong parts. He makes a good point as to why Japan is so successful. The best minds of Japan aren't even in manufacturing. That segment is look down upon by the Japanese as being boring by its brightest. I've often wondered why the bright minds go into that segment for the same reason. Found out they don't - which makes a lot of sense. They don't need to as the overall weird Japanese culture nearly assures that they produce exceptional products partly due to their inefficiency. Their door hinges use ball bearings that would meet the US standard for use on space shuttles, Sakaiya says. -Dad.

I think I'll read that book. It seems quite interesting. I have long felt that most Japanese in Japan do not really understand Japanese culture in some sense: they are so close they can't see it, in a way. You have to look at Japan from the outside to really see it --- probably the same for any culture, to really see it you have to be able to see it from an external as well as an internal viewpoint. As a Japanese-American who has a great deal of interest in Japanese culture and philosophy I feel I have a good vantage point, better in many ways than most Japanese themselves have there. I'm glad some people there are beginning to wake up to the fact that Japanese need to do some serious self-examination to see what makes Japan work and what needs to be changed or improved. Long overdue. But Japanese are a very pragmatic people --- once the ideas get out there, they can and will change. They've done it before. I think I'll pick up a copy of Sakaiya's book.

February 13, 2002

When I was a freshman in college, our room phone broke and would no longer dial. However, since I had observed that rotary phones worked by emitting "clicks" that seemed to be caused by little breaks in the line, I was able to dial out by rapidly tapping on the hang-up button. I think I was inspired by old movies where people would pick up a phone and rapidly hit that thing (what is it called? Anybody know?) and yell "Operator? Operator!" (usually to no avail, but that didn't daunt me).

It worked. But I was the only person in my suite, somehow, who was able to do it consistently enough to dial a specific number. So whenever anyone wanted to make a call, they had to ask me to dial for them... luckily it was only a few weeks before the end of the school year when this happened.

I spend more money than most people do on hardware, because hardware is cheap. I've written about this before: the cost of something is not the cost, but the cost / its expected lifetime. A TV will last 10 years, which means an $800 television, even if you factor in interest (i.e., if you bought it on a credit card), is only about $10/month. Same goes for speakers and amplifiers: they are dirt cheap. Just think about it: Dial-up AOL costs the same as buying a $2000 projection TV. Computers are more expensive because they obsolete themselves within a few years. But anyway I am saying this because I'm sitting here listening to music on my Cambridge Soundworks speakers that originally cost me $300. The sound is fantastic, it is liquid and flowing and powerful. And it was worth the tiny cost.

February 12, 2002

Susan and I were in an office today which had a copy of HomeStyle Magazine, which I at first did not want to look at, but she started paging through it and I glanced over and saw the most godawful ugly interior design I have ever seen. It is not just that the design was not good, it was actively, hilariously, offensively bad... yet I could not turn my eyes away, it was like watching a horrific car crash, twisted metal, smoke, blood, and all. I include a sample above, but I assure you there is a lot more where this came from. I have heard of "design porn" magazines, but I can't really classify this (note the matching shirt and wallpaper).

The problem with Soviet-style communism was simple: it attempted to centralize all control. This was also the problem with Nazi Germany, which, despite appearances, was remarkably chaotic and disorganized --- part of the reason for this was the Fuhrer insisted on centralizing all command decisions. One of the reasons they did not respond to the Allied attack at Normandy was that despite the fact that commanders on the scene could see the approaching fleet, the Nazi command structure was too bureaucratic to allow them to call in reinforcements --- by the time Rommel was awakened and informed of what had happened, he realized that he had lost: German defeat was inevitable.

This is, ironically, the same problem with large corporations. The Soviet state should not have been called state socialism: it should have been called state capitalism. Large corporations are bureaucratic entities with overly centralized flows of information and control. This can work, provided the corporations have to survive in the face of market competition: but corporations, if they get too close to democratic government, can become entwined with it, and the oversight that a properly functioning government can provide can get brushed aside. Government has many legitimate functions in regulating markets: not by micromanaging them, but by setting large-scale and long-term envelopes and biases to help achieve better global optimization. Markets are excellent tools for automatically seeking out and finding local optima, but they are inadequate for assuring global optimization. Though most people understand the value of markets as optimizers, some fail to realize that passing laws that overly favor big corporations does not push us away from Soviet-style communism, but rather closer to it: the Soviet Union was the limit case where all corporations were monopolies, and corporate bureaucracy had totally supplanted government altogether. The government had merged with the corporation in the Soviet Union. They behaved in every way like a corporation gone mad: there were no environmental laws in the USSR --- Soviet industries dumped toxic waste all over residential neighborhoods, in the water, the air... it was the dirtiest, most irresponsible state capitalist enterprise ever. And those who promote custom-tailored corporate sponsored legislation push us in that direction. That's the harsh truth. Government and business should not be adversaries, nor should they be in collusion: they ought to be complementary. Markets are good at short-term local optimization, and government is better at long-term, global optimization.

February 11, 2002

The fallout continues from the idiotic speech:

The threats expressed by Mr. Bush and other administration officials over the last two weeks surprised many in Iran. In some ways they have united the reformists and the old guard here in criticism of the United States; in others they have strengthened the hand of the conservatives.
Way to go, Bush & Co. Just what we need right now: strengthening the hand of our enemies.

As I wrote at length in the immediate aftermath of September 11, I was actually fairly pleasantly surprised by the relative restraint and rationality of the Bush Administration's response. We definitely bombed too many civilian areas and held back for too long on bombing front-line Taliban troops, but aside from this, overall the campaign was both good foreign policy and, in an unusual twist, generally speaking the right thing to do, I believe, even from the Afghan perspective. Yes, many civilians were killed, many unnecessarily, but the long-term future of both Afghanistan and the world required some strong response, and though we must get better at both our intelligence and our precision, nevertheless innocent civilian deaths are inevitable once the terrible eventuality of war is forced upon the world.

That was then and this is now. The Bush Administration has careened wildly back to its pre-September 11th position, adopting unutterably stupid and arrogant policy positions which can only serve to undermine our long-term security. Making Iran a public target was the worst mistake of all: of course there are forces within Iran that oppose us, and they may well have been responsible for helping some of our enemies, but... the majority of the Iranian people were not against us, and the reformers there wanted rapprochement. If we had evidence that rogue elements within Iran were conspiring against us, we should have tried to deal with this quietly, behind the scenes, and used it as a way to strengthen the hand of our allies there. Instead, George Bush gets up and utters the ridiculous and tragic "Axis of Evil" speech which would be funny if it hadn't been so disastrous. This is the problem with having a stupid man as President: our policy will never be consistent because he will simply lurch back and forth from one set of advisers to the other, with no rhyme or reason. "Presidential spokesmodel" is not a recipie for intelligent or consistent governance.

February 10, 2002

Sad story of Ars Digita's rise and fall. Lesson: don't get greedy. Grow slowly. Take in outside investors: not at all, or in very tiny amounts. Don't be intimidated by MBAs.

Been going to see the excellent local Cascade Festival of African Films; last night saw Lumumba, an amazing historical drama about the rise and fall of the Congolese nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba, who it is now known was assassinated with the help of the Belgian government and the CIA. We discovered at the screening that four days ago the Belgian government finally admitted its complicity in the act. Even more astonishing was the remarkable appearance of a former speaker of the Congolese Parliament, a woman whose family was part of Lumumba's party, who is now a refugee in the United States, living in Portland. She answered questions from the audience and exuded a formidable sense of dignity and wisdom --- it was both moving and an honor to witness it. Tonight we saw a very different film, a Nigerian production called Thunderbolt, one of a new crop of extremely low-budget videos shot for popular consumption --- it was also excellent in its own way, very entertaining and illuminating. It was good to see both films --- one an arthouse film with slick production values seen perhaps more in the West than in Africa itself, and the other one of a new generation of popular films being made with very little money but at least in this case with artistry and style. Afterwards we heard a number of Nigerians dicussing the many issues raised by the film, including the status and efficacy of traditional Nigerian herbal medicine --- not a few Nigerians in the audience arguing forcefully that this could be something that Nigeria could export to the West. (The events in the film were rather fantastic, albeit amusing, but the efficacy of at least some traditional herbal medicine is something they felt Nigeria could contribute to the world.) Furthermore, Danny Glover made a surprise in-person appearance before the film began --- he has been a longtime supporter of African film, and has appeared in a number of African productions.

February 8, 2002

If you've ever seen 2001, this will make you laugh, laugh, laugh. Well, it made me laugh, laugh, laugh, anyway. (Via consumptive.org.) The Making of One: A Space Odyssey is almost as funny as the film itself (note: it is a Lego film):

The space pod is a small ROUND one man craft with ROUND edges and a ROUND window, it is made out of SQUARE bricks, and as such I can honestly say that it is the hardest thing I have ever had to build.


February 7, 2002

It's interesting how driving etiquette varies from region to region ... even though people in this country are very mobile, each region still seems to retain its own road culture. As I've mentioned before, in Los Angeles, where I grew up, there is a very specific set of unwritten rules about everything from changing lanes to merging to cutting into traffic, etc. If someone lets you in, about 90% of people will hold their hands up in the "thank you wave." If you are new to town and don't know these rules, it can seem as though L.A. traffic is unforgiving --- but you just need to get a feel for Los Angeles etiquette. Drivers do expect you to follow the rules, stay alert, pay attention, but if you do these things it's quite easy to navigate. Merging: the rule is simple, every other car. (Sometimes people try to cheat but if you "insist" and you're following the rule, they'll back down.) Changing lanes: it's a timing thing --- you wait for the moment when you can move without disturbing the flow too much --- exactly when that is is hard to describe, but everybody knows when it is. If you move at the right moment, people will let you in. If traffic is heavy, some people will make a special effort to let you in, and you wave thank you in those cases.

I think part of the well-developed freeway culture in Los Angeles comes from the fact that everyone drives a lot. In Portland, a city where you can get by in the central city, at least, without a car, the culture is less mature. When there's a merging situation, it sometimes results in chaos. People try to cram in sometimes with no pattern, resulting in far more delays than needed. At least 2/3rds of the time when I try to let someone in to a crowded street, they don't even see me trying to let them in --- it's not part of the culture here. And when I do let them only some of the time do I get the "thank you wave"... the ones who do wave, maybe they're from L.A.!

In San Francisco you can never be sure what a driver is going to do. A lot of the drivers are fine, but I've had situations where I'm behind someone on a freeway onramp and they go up to the top and STOP. Aaaah! Some people drive incredibly slowly, or change lanes erratically and unexpectedly, etc.

One place where I feel comfortable driving is, strangely, New York City. While the traffic patterns and style are totally different, the people who do drive in New York tend to be hyper-alert and very good (even if aggressive) drivers. As an Angeleno it is easy for me to adapt --- though I come from a much more laid-back traffic culture, I recognize good drivers when I see them. These are people who know how to handle a car. They see me, I see them. So even whizzing up Fifth Avenue, hurtling through the "pack" trying to keep up with the timed lights, I feel at ease. These drivers are different, but they are predictable, on top of things, paying attention.

February 6(b), 2002

By the way, Samantha Randall, if you read this, email me! Been wondering what happened to you and your weblog... not sure if your email is still working or what. I heard that you are actually alive... so...

February 6, 2002

There are some people I trust to know that I am safe to be open around, and around whom I feel safe to be open. By "open" I mean: letting down my boundaries so that something very raw can come out, that is to say, something grounded and real. That raw thing is very delicate, easily crushed.

Lopati sends me this article on bipolar disorder.

February 5, 2002

I don't really like alcohol... the taste. When I was a kid I decided I decided I didn't want to eat or drink anything that was an acquired taste. I told my parents that kids had more sensitive tastebuds, and I'd eat the things they liked when my tastebuds had declined to the point that they matched theirs. For some reason they bought this. As I expected, as I grew up I liked more and more things, until now I can eat practically anything with relish --- but alcohol still tastes bitter and nasty to me. However, one day when I was in Paris I was talking with this French woman and she offered me a glass of wine and I declined, saying I didn't drink, and she looked so disappointed and said "oh, that's too bad" --- feeling sorry that I was missing out on a whole universe of gustatory appreciation. I decided that perhaps I ought to try to learn how to drink, finally, after all this time. I've only had alcohol a few times before now --- but in the last few months I've tried (bad) wine, (good) sake, and (good, or so they tell me) tequila. Tequila, man, that was harsh. I don't think I will ever like that stuff. But wine, I think I can learn to appreciate that. I already kind of find sake tolerable. Still, one glass of whatever seems to be enough for me. I don't really feel anything from it, subjectively, though I think I become a bit more voluble.

From the Metafilter comments to my creativity/bipolar thread:

Psychological theories of creativity (from Everything2).

Bunnyfire posts that Kay Redfield Jamison has written a book on this subject called Touched With Fire. More about Kay Redfield Jamison.

Web project about bipolar disorder and creativity at Princeton (posted by Walrus).

I should mention that it was Giantkicks who originally posted links to me on Metafilter. He reproduced my photo right there on his page ... I guess it does serve to make my writing more personal in a way. There "I" am.

February 4, 2002

At least for now, a lot of people are leaving their wireless hubs "open" so anyone in range can use them. In Portland, it is organized.

My posts about creativity and its relationship to depression and bipolar disorder have been linked on Metafilter. Some comments here. In reference to my musing about adding "just a little" bipoolar disorder to one's personality, Pam Winkler writes:

...I wanted to let you know that there are indeed very mild cases of manic-depression. There is cyclothymic disorder, which is very mild but can last for years. I think there may be even milder forms of manic-depression, but I can't say for sure. There is a book out that discusses very mild forms of mental disorders, if you are curious you could check that out.
I like hugging: not those brief hugs you get when you greet a friend, but long, prolonged hugs, on a couch or a bed with someone you really love. Hugs that touch every part of your body (but you can leave your clothes on), hugs that make you feel that you are merging a hidden part of you with the other person, touching internally in some invisible way. I wonder if I hugged a woman for ten minutes on a couch, would that be considered "cheating" if she wasn't my girlfriend? What about an hour? Or all night? But in a lot of ways I'd rather do that than have sex. Not that I don't enjoy sex, mind you. It is curious to me that prolonged hugging between people who like each other but don't want to have a sexual affair is not a more common. Like a sort of ritualized "more than friends" but "not (sexual) lovers."

The best "sex" I ever had was with my clothes completely on. We both had "orgasms" but no fluids were involved, except maybe saliva (we were kissing). It was amazing.

I rarely watch football, but out of idle curiosity I turned the TV on today and watched bits of the Super Bowl. I was intrigued primarily by one thing: every year for the last seven years they've played a "Game Before the Game" using video games (this year it was Sony PlayStation 2's), and every year for the last seven years the winner of the "Game Before the Game" went on to win the Super Bowl. Including this year, where the underdog Patriots scored a 14-7 win over the Rams in simulation, and they won the real Super Bowl 20-17 (and it wouldn't have been that close except for some last-minute mistakes by the Patriots and some luck on the part of the Rams). I watched primarily to see if the trend would continue. The video game they used is an extremely detailed simulation that uses statistics from every player on the opposing teams. It seems it is becoming unnecessary to actually play the real game.... It doesn't surprise me that the simulator would have a better record than the football "experts" --- detailed realistic simulations can often result in predictions that our ordinary human faculties fail to foresee. Next year if the "Game Before the Game" predicts an upset or even a close game, I'm gonna be in Vegas laying down some cash.

February 3, 2002

Jeremy Bushnell had a dream with me in it several days ago, which he recorded in his dreamlog.

Mitsu (of Synthetic Zero weblog) has linked to someone else's review of an album called Insect Penis, which features improvisations laid over recordings of burrowing insects. The album must have some connection with producer Bill Laswell, for Mitsu remarks on how Laswell is dying of some brain ailment, an accumulation of metals in the brain. The ailment is blamed on Laswell's chronic use of marijuana. Mitsu says "I don't fault him for that, as I've partaken of my share."

On Insect Penis, Mitsu remarks "It is worth noting that the only creatures I am currently interested in communing with are sites (by which he means environmental locations) or creatures who make their homes in the air."

Which is funny because he tells me he had this dream before reading my circumcision post. (ps As it happens, though I have nothing against it, when I was in college I decided that I would be the one person who never took any psychoactive drugs... despite the fact that I have friends who are deeply into psychopharmacology as a form of psycho-spiritual exploration, which I respect. I have explored altered states, but via natural, albeit sometimes esoteric, means --- except for the occasional small bit of alcohol --- which is another story.)

Lily Burana has a weblog. I knew her, in a way (in that "online" way) from the old days at The WELL in my pre-weblog days. (These days I try to avoid the WELL except for my hosting duties and a few select conferences... somehow my weblog life has been a lot more fulfilling than that ever was. Plus I like the fact that anybody from anywhere can read this, for free.)

The Bush Administration is really depressing me these days. Heather Anne tells me she never watches the television news and only looks at a very select subset of news outlets because otherwise it would be too depressing. I think I understand why she feels this way after watching the State of the Union address. These guys are really going off the deep end. "Axis of evil" --- how idiotic. They sound like children... which I suppose is about the intellectual level of Bush Jr. It was funny, in a way, when Reagan did it, but now, it is far more ominous.

February 1, 2002

Ruthie's Double really was back, but then she disappeared for a few days, but now she really, really is back. She sometimes gets shocked when I change months. Not to worry. It's all still here.

102 Israeli reservists refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. These people show the sort of courage required to end this conflict. The Palestinians have to have the courage to end violent resistance to occupation, and the Israelis have to show the courage to end the violent occupation.

African-American trumpet player for the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, the cousin of Wynton Marsalis, brutalized by police in Barcelona.