synthetic zero


January 9th, 2015

Like any non-psychotic human being, I’m appalled at the horrific massacre in Paris. At the same time, I find many of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo pointlessly inflammatory and tasteless, particularly those showing Mohammed in sexual positions. Yes, they targeted every religion and many public figures on the right and the left — but there’s something dark, mean-spirited, unfunny, and racist about some of these cartoons, and so while condemning the violence I can’t bring myself to post “I am Charlie Hebdo.” I am not Charlie Hebdo. There does seem to be a problematic attitude towards othering subcultures inherent in these cartoons, which for some reason many in France found funny, but I really don’t. We can abhor the horrific violence without valorizing everything the victims did in their lives.

Addendum: this is not about assigning blame to the victims for their murder, it is about whether or not victims should always be praised as unalloyed heroes for everything they did. The former is insane, the latter, however, I am uncomfortable with and have been from the beginning of this.

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December 16th, 2014

An article lamenting the art scene in Toronto…


I think New York sucks people and energy out of many cities in its vicinity, not just Toronto — certainly the entire “suburban” area surrounding it (New Jersey, Westchester, Connecticut, Long Island), as well as cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore… speaking about the culture as a whole, not just the art world. Being from Los Angeles, originally, which is a kind of Borgesian infinite expanse of points which contain all other points, a city with no center, a city in which things fold in on themselves at increasing distances, it feels disorienting to be in a place where there’s such a clear center which radiates itself outward and where everyone attempts to find the last place, closest to the center, where they can afford to live. Occasionally I drive to Jersey (yes, I have a car, an Angeleno transplant who cannot fully admit to being in a place where owning a car is an absurdity) and encounter a world both familiar and strange — there are the same sort of malls and suburban life, out there, that exist in my hometown metropolis, but strangely evacuated of what one takes for granted in California, the sense that nestled in between the gleaming, sprawling malls and big box stores may be, and are, treasures you have yet to discover. You can feel it, everywhere there, but it’s been vacuumed out of all but the most proximate edges of the suburban landscape around New York… and it must be because it all heads towards the center, towards New York, eventually.

Los Angeles breeds its own kind of one-way rivalry — no one ever says bad things about San Francisco or Northern California there, but Northern Californians (people from the SF Bay Area like to call themselves “Northern Californians” perhaps to establish themselves in a much larger geographical context) love to hate Los Angeles, seemingly unaware the rivalry is entirely one-sided. Angelenos have no idea that San Francisco hates them. Even with the rise of the tech industry and the international significance that has placed in that region of the world, the one-way rivalry lives on, for reasons I’m not sure anyone fully understands.

I’ve often remarked upon the culture among the artists of my father’s generation — the abstract painters and other artists working then — how generous they are with each other. How unconcerned with commercial success, notoriety, fame. They sit together, my father (who is completely unknown and has never even attempted to have a commercial career), and his friends, some of whom sell their works for tens of thousands of dollars a piece, some of whom don’t even make work anymore, and they all talk completely as peers, swap work and stories, because they have a kind of existential appreciation for each other as people, and have never been competitive with each other. Today’s art world, not only in Toronto but it seems throughout the world, does seem remarkably less cooperative in many ways, though that same character exists in New York, as well, but perhaps because it is New York, that doesn’t stop art from happening here. I’m not sure how long this will last, however… art now is the harbinger of rapid gentrification and sky high rents, a trend that cannot continue forever, but one which has already priced most people out of most of Manhattan and much of nearby Brooklyn. The future will not be like the past.

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September 17th, 2014

There are so many things that are actually the opposite of what they seem… and it causes so many life problems. For instance … the usual way people tend to think about making something happen in life is that you should make a huge effort, and the opposite is that is to laze around and do nothing. So “struggle” is associated with “effort” which is associated with “doing things”, and “relaxation” is associated with “not doing anything”. I.e.:



But, this is not right, at all. This ignores context, scope, spaciousness. That is, if you’re making an effort, struggling, and “doing stuff” but it is all towards some “goal” that is itself conceived of a narrow or limited perception, in fact you may just be reinforcing the same habits and thoughts and world view that got you into whatever dead end you might find yourself in in the first place. Struggling without insight, without spaciousness, is a great way to keep things exactly the same as they always have been.

There’s another way, of course: relaxation, but not a vague, fuzzed-out, foggy relaxation — but instead an alert, present, open spaciousness — that can open you up to possibilities far, far beyond your habits. Relaxing can be hyper-present and aware and offer the possibility of revolutionary change, and mindless, reactive struggle can be just another way of embedding yourself in the same traps. Allow me to suggest an alternate schema:



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July 10th, 2014

Most things, as you progress along, you can see you’re getting steadily closer to the goal, step by step. But with coding, quite often, you can work for hours and hours, or days and days, on something and you imagine that you may never get to the point it is totally working. Everything seems hopeless… until, suddenly, impossibly, everything works perfectly and you feel like a genius. Again. And in your mind, the problem that just seemed like a dark jungle of twisted complexity appears to be “trivial.” Everything always seems trivial when you get it working.

But then, you voluntarily decide to jump into the darkness again.

After a while, you learn that no matter how dark it seems, the light of beautiful function is hovering on the unseen horizon. But even with that accumulated experience, in the back of your mind, you still have that nagging feeling… maybe THIS time is the time I NEVER figure it out…

The best programmers are the ones who manage to push that thought deep into their pile of repressed fears, and charge ahead once more into the unknown.


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May 19th, 2014

I was walking with Heather and Jungmin today and we were talking about this and that, and in the context of our conversation, Heather asked, “Why do we die?” She meant it in a biological sense — why do organisms die, rather than just live forever?

I said “I don’t know, but let’s think about this a bit… one hint might be that most species engage in sexual reproduction, which allows for a variety of different genetic possibilities to be tried. Dying is part of this, because the species can only explore different genetic possibilities if previous generations die out to make room for the newer generations. But then the question arises — how would this evolve?” I paused for a second to think about this a bit more deeply. “Consider two species, one which had individuals which never died of old age, and another which explored different genetic possibilities through sexual reproduction and death. Clearly, the second species would explore a lot more possibilities, genetically, than the first, over the same time period, giving the second species a huge adaptive advantage over the first.” We talked about this idea some more and Heather pointed out that, in some sense, while we all are often assholes to each other, and are often selfish, we are also all engaged in a highly cooperative activity, as well; by living, reproducing, and dying to make room for future generations, we’re collectively helping our species adapt and evolve.

The most dramatic and meaningful stories and events always seem to have to do with the boundaries of life: reproduction (love and sex), and death. Somehow we’re all subconsciously aware of this.

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February 8th, 2014

It’s really a wonderful world. Being. It’s quiet and seems like everything is still. Yet it includes all movement. All movement is actually stillness and vice versa. It strips away fake importance and in its place is real meaning. It is difficult to hide there. Maybe that’s one of the scariest things about it.

Instead of coercive needs, it has acceptance. But the acceptance can have desire and affection and love in it. The most intense and scary things are right there alongside the everyday and familiar. but the everyday and familiar takes on a different, initially unfamiliar cast. Exactly like going through the looking glass. Everything on the other side is still there, but it’s a vastly wonderous strange world.

It seems frightening and disorienting at first. Like giving up everything. But then it turns out everyone and everything is really still there. In being. Running away from it is like running away from ourselves and everything we love. It’s a strange and funny and beautiful paradox.

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January 25th, 2014

Years ago I was riding in a car with Sue and she was driving and I was sleeping. We were driving through the mountains. I woke up just as we were headed almost off the road into the chasm below when Sue must have nodded off for a second, just in time for me to yell “HEY!”. I often think that we actually died together, tragically, two young people in love, off the side of a mountain, but since everything that can happen, does, in some universe, this is one of the thin threads of improbability that comprise us surviving and everyone and everything that has happened since then is like the fever dream in Jacob’s Ladder except not nightmarish but sort of fun yet a little tragic and sad and filled with weird interesting characters and people I got to know, like you.

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September 8th, 2013

A young couple goes to a Zen monk to ask him to write a blessing on the occasion of the birth of their child. He contemplates this for a moment and then writes, in beautiful calligraphy, the words “Grandfather die, father die, son die.” The couple is horrified: “You haven’t written us a blessing, you’ve written us a curse!” The Zen monk responds: “Would you have it any other way?”

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March 15th, 2013

There’s been an increasing brouhaha in blogs and on Twitter over “digital dualism”; Whitney Boesel summarizes it adroitly here (while also pointing out an asymmetry in citations of female theorists in the debates). There seems to be a bit of confusion going on in the debate, however; even Jurgenson, who initiated this discussion with his blog post The IRL Fetish, seems to tacitly admit that there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between the digital and material worlds. But I think even that distinction is severely flawed: in fact, it makes perfect sense to think of the physical world itself in information terms; that is, rather than using a metaphor of billiard balls, so to speak, it is more apropos to think of the so-called physical universe in information theory terms, particularly in light of quantum mechanics. This perspective is sometimes called information physics.

This isn’t to say that the introduction of computers and networks has made no difference in our lives, or doesn’t represent a very important change; obviously it does. The change is not ontological, however. The physical world itself is “made of” information, as I noted above. Furthermore, all of human culture has involved sending and receiving signs using varied media, from speech to graphemes to paintings and poetry; even the human body itself can be seen as flows of information. Now information flow uses new systems which are far faster, which enable much more rapid copying and dissemination across vast physical distances which do not require owning broadcast media towers or printing presses. That is, of course, a change of a very important kind, but it’s not an ontological change, it’s not a creation of a new and separate world.

The world isn’t divided into the “real” and “virtual” any more than the introduction of radio or television divided the world into “real” and “on the air”. It’s introduced new channels for flows of information, and these flows have interesting, even radically new properties, but the existence of new flows doesn’t create a separate reality. We haven’t lived with these patterns of flows for very long, so they feel strange to us, and like every change they induce an instinctive counter-reaction; nostalgia for a past we are more familiar with, and a not entirely irrational fear that the change may introduce social, cultural, or physical phenomena into our lives which negatively impact our lives or destroy cherished features of the world we are replacing.

Bruce Sterling pointed this out quite poignantly in his always-funny and always trenchant SXSW closing talk: even as we change the world, even if in sometimes positive ways, we are simultaneously destroying parts of it. The internet hasn’t created a separate world but it has changed the world. Newspapers and bookstores are on their way out. Even things that came into being with the internet are getting paved over by later iterations of it, as the closing of Google Reader illustrates. The internet has facilitated and accelerated change, and it’s not always just for the better: what comes next rises over the ashes of what we’ve replaced. It’s worth thinking about what we might be losing as we move on, but the world hasn’t bifurcated, and there’s no “going back” to the “real” world — this is already the real world.

This reminds me of a story about my cousin Midori when she was a young girl, maybe 3 years old, visiting with my aunt and uncle. We were hiking in Tecolote canyon in San Diego, and she was throwing rocks into the stream. My aunt said, “don’t throw rocks into the stream, let natural process take care of it!” My cousin said, “But I am part of natural process!” “Natural” doesn’t always mean good or better, however. Denying digital dualism doesn’t foreclose paying attention to the features of change, for the better, the worse, or, as is usually the case, both.

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November 5th, 2012

Buddhism is a peculiar tradition in that, unlike most spiritual or religious traditions, it emphasizes not only the emptiness of objects and things, but even the emptiness of its own teleology, in a certain wonderful self-referential way. That is to say, not only does it say the world of apparent things, events, space, and time, and so on are not what they appear to be and are empty of inherent existence (which isn’t to say they have no existence at all — it just means they’re not solid, self-existing “things” that exist on their own, without relation to perception), but it also denies the simple story that “enlightenment” (which is usually seen to be the “goal” of Buddhism in more simple presentations) is itself not in fact a goal, a result of a process in time that unfolds to reach “Buddhahood” as the final limit.

It’s a peculiar tension, because, despite this, Buddhism does talk a lot about realization, enlightenment, and so on. From one point of view, it appears that they’re referring to a process in time, something you build up to and eventually attain (they even use a word which translates to “attainment”.) Yet, it’s not attainment in the ordinary sense, the result or product of ordinary effort in time, because that would be a self-contradiction. The resolution of this seeming contradiction is a central koan, so to speak.

I’ve been attending a meditation retreat, and I came across this book, “Buddhahood Without Meditation”, and flipped open randomly to two pages which seemed quite poignant to me, related to these topics. In the first passage, a mysterious teacher has appeared, and is giving instruction:

“…all sentient beings… are confused because they become fixated, investing apparent phenomena with truth, even though they are in fact like the unfolding of dream images—they cannot be established to be more than mere appearances, empty and without objective existence.

“If you thus come to a definitive conclusion regarding the apparent phenomena that arise from confusion, realizing that they lack true existence, are empty and do not exist objectively, you will have dredged the pit of cyclic existence from its depths. By arriving at the decision that buddhahood is none other than your own inherent ground of being, and by gaining this confidence within yourself, you will actually attain what is referred to as the ‘natural freedom of the many buddhas.’

“Ah, powerful lord of space, omnipresent vajra, you must come to the definitive conclusion that none of the phenomena of samsara and nirvana exist but that all are empty, and you must realize their inherent nature to be that of nonexistence.”

Saying this, he vanished from sight.

Then I flipped to another page, at random, discussing various points one should master:

1) Collapsing the false cave of investing buddhahood and its attendant pure realms with true existence, as objects of hope

Even ”buddhahood” and the various phenomena associated with it do not have real existence and should not be wished for as something one hopes for in the future, as the future result of an ordinary process in time.

a) Negating fixation on conceiving of buddhahood and its attendant pure realms as some final limit

They warn against thinking of “buddhahood” as a limit case of a process or series.

b) To that end, examining the five senses and their attendant objects and refuting the exaggeration of ascribing true existence to these

To begin to realize this, they recommend starting with understanding the constructed, contingent nature of objects of ordinary perception.

2) Collapsing the false cave of investing the states of cyclic existence and their attendant pleasures and pain with true existence, as objects of fear

At the same time, this could potentially lead to the opposite extreme, i.e., thinking of samsara, apparent “reality”, with its pain and pleasure, as something one ought to be afraid of, avoid, attempt to “escape”. In other words, they’re warning against both problematics: setting up “buddhahood” as the limit case of a process in time, or, alternately, seeing “samsara” as a problematic, something one ought to be afraid of, escape, fear. One of the most famous Mahayana sayings is “samsara = nirvana, nirvana = samsara” — not two distinct realms or modes, but two aspects of one unified reality. Yet at the same time, this doesn’t mean there’s no issue — just that the way to work with this tension isn’t via ordinary effort in ordinary time, but rather via an opening to something which is always already the case.

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