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November 24th, 2009

Okay, so some people were concerned about my tweeting about “devoting my life to protecting everyone from me and people like me.” This is along the lines of some things I’ve written recently regarding virtue, but I thought I’d explain a bit more for those who may have been worried. I suppose, like Magda O, I have a certain degree of self-objectification, and in my case that takes the form of ruminating about how strange I seem to be relative to the way most other people seem to me to be. One of these strange things is that, while I have a strong desire to be helpful to people and the world, and I consider this in some sense the reason for my existence of my life, I really don’t have a strong feeling of sympathy for people. In fact, I’ve often thought that I seem to have many of the symptoms of sociopaths, in that I don’t have a strong response of sympathy for others. I also wonder regularly why it is I don’t actually go the route of most sociopaths and actually actively harm others — in fact I go out of my way to protect others — I believe it is because I also don’t have much of a feeling of sympathy for myself, either.

That is to say, in general the whole question of whether I ought to behave in a way which is for the benefit of others or not isn’t a question of feelings but rather a matter of something more akin to awareness. That is to say, I think selfish or criminal behavior is stupid, pointless, and based on lack of awareness. That is to say, it requires a strange narrowing down of focus to the point that one is obsessing over what is, for me, just minor details of the overall situation; i.e., one’s personal gain, and so forth. However, because of my general lack of sympathy I can very much understand the thoughts and motives of the criminal, of the sociopath — I just think their vision is small, limited, in a word, kind of dumb, not to mention inept. To be excessively concerned with one’s self-advancement is, in a sense, akin to being excessively concerned about the welfare of, say, a little doll that you made in the image of yourself; i.e., a kind of odd displacement of effort onto a toy version of yourself and the world. This isn’t to say I value the welfare of others more than my own; I certainly value my own welfare about equally with others, though it’s better to say that I think of myself as actually not separable from the whole context in which we are all embedded; ultimately, the universe. Since the focal nexus which one might call “me” is closer to the things people might ordinarily call my “self”, obviously I do take more care of things related to myself; that’s how it has to work for everyone. But I don’t, in principle, think it’s interesting or worth my time to focus too much on the welfare of what one might call my “self” excessively more than others. I find thinking about and working with the fabric of the larger context of life to be far more exciting and interesting. And it is this which motivates the extent to which I am altruistic, not a sense of sympathy as it is, I think, with a lot of people.

I do think, therefore, that what people call virtue is generally speaking a good idea, but virtue as it is usually expressed is in terms of rules we “should” follow and they tend to be rather rigid and overly simplistic, whereas I find real virtue is far more subtle, flexible, varied, and context-dependent, and to the extent I am virtuous it is not because God told me to be virtuous or because of some punishment or reward in the afterlife, but rather because it is more interesting, satisfying, and rich to live in accord with life in its largest and most vivid and present sense. Read the rest of this entry »

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November 23rd, 2009

A while ago I wrote a glowing post about Google which a number of people told me they liked; I never wrote a followup post, but I have a lot more thoughts on the subject.

Pretty much everything I wrote in that post turned out to be true — Google really is a very bottom-up company. The feel of the place is like an open source community which has been placed behind a corporate wall; that is to say, there’s a relatively free and open exchange of ideas within the company: as an engineer you have access to nearly all the source code, and lots of ideas come from the bottom up. It has such an open source feel, internally, that the ethos permeates it, to the point where many Google projects end up being open sourced outside the corporate wall; Android, Chrome, and Chrome OS all come to mind. This contributes a great deal to solid engineering, as we all know now, open source as a development methodology does work well for creating reliable software. However, it turns out that this architecture has one major failing: a lack of understanding of design from the user perspective. For all the solidity of Linux and free software from an engineering perspective, it still falls far short of being easy to use.

This is not to say that Google products are as hard to use as Linux — they do have designers at Google, they do user research and testing. There is an awareness of user experience as a field and a theoretical commitment to it. But — Google is, at its core, a company made by and for engineers. As stopdesign, Google’s first visual designer, put it in his famous post last March about why he left Google: “Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions.” Google’s engineers drive product ideas, they drive product design, and this turns out to be its major weakness.

While working at Google I got one of the early Android phones; I have to admit, Android is a beautiful piece of engineering. It’s responsive, stable, and feature rich, unlike Windows Mobile, which has been an unmitigated disaster for years (see my comments about Windows Mobile below that article). However, there’s just something clunky about Android. Yes, it’s far superior to every other smartphone OS… except the iPhone; next to that, it pales in comparison. It’s not simply because Android can’t use some of Apple’s patented UI ideas; there are just a lot of places where things are more complicated than they should be, take more steps, or are inconsistent. It’s less pleasant to use than an iPhone. If I were to give it a subjective score, I’d say it’s “half” as nice to use as an iPhone.

That was my first clue there was something amiss at Google. But then other things happened; I realized I was unusual in my design orientation — I believed in user research, talking to users, designing with users in mind. While my managers and coworkers initially seemed open to this, the more I tried to bring this into the development process, the less well-received it was. The focus there seemed to be primarily on coding — how much code did you write last week? Did you write your code the way I would have written it? How well was it formatted? Of course, I realize that was just my experience in the one group I was working with, but I got the feeling that this was a widespread phenomenon — the key thing people seemed to value at Google was code, and to a lesser extent engineering architecture — but design definitely takes the back burner. Read the rest of this entry »

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November 10th, 2009

A lot of my friends were disturbed by the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York which is particularly curious for its total lack of dramatic resolution; a theme that Kaufman also explored in Adaptation in a less extreme way. But for me the film was both brilliant and oddly uplifting; I suppose this relates to something Amarilla touched on in a recent post, the relationship between emptiness/darkness and equanimity or liberation. If you try to find your stability in some thing, some relationship or explanation or resolution or a particular set of conditions then you’re going to have trouble; as the Buddhists like to emphasize — everything is impermanent. The alternative seems bleak: if everything disappears in the end, isn’t that somehow horrific, terrible, cause for despair? It may seem that way, but there’s another way of taking it. What if it were possible to ground yourself in emptiness, where your roots, so to speak, reach out into the darkness, and don’t rest on any specific thing but if anything in the totality, the empty/full reality in its entirety? Without trying to find a resolution in a specific set of conditions, one can find something sublime in the totally interconnected and yet independent network of relations which comprise the universe; so there’s no specific part of it one can rely on but one can rely on the entirety of it, because we are never separated from this empty/full ground of Being. From that perspective, the fact that Kaufman’s character never finishes his project(s), the fact that everything in his life disappears, the simulacra and the reality all fade and are destroyed, this is simply inherent in this matrix of life. What’s the alternative? Is the purpose of life to come to a resolution, or is it to be found in the beautiful emphemerality of everything which is both impermanent and yet the source of both beauty and ugliness, suffering and bliss… what would be the point of doing things if the goal is to simply reach some end point. Such an end point would by definition be static, dead, the “end” — but we don’t have to structure our lives in terms of projects with a beginning, middle, and end, even if Hollywood movies usually are written this way.

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November 4th, 2009

Years ago I went to see David Lynch’s Eraserhead with a group of friends of mine, one of whom was Ted Park, the younger brother of one of my high school classmates, Ron Park. After the film, while we were walking, Ted said to me “I hope this movie doesn’t corrupt you, Mits.” I was quite surprised by this and I just laughed and laughed. I thought it was sweet that Ted thought this of me, but in fact it was quite a strange concern, from my point of view. By that time I’d already seen so much (my father is an artist and my parents often took me to see all sorts of films, art openings, etc., when I was growing up, Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman or strange art films or performances) that Eraserhead was no big deal to me. But there’s something else, as well.

Some people see me as a somewhat “pure” person, or as one just put it, “incorruptible” — but I don’t think of myself that way at all. To the contrary, I think of myself as, in a way, already corrupted — so totally corrupted that I’ve come right out the other side. A shade of black so black that it appears white again. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but that’s the basic image. My version of “virtue” is not based on trying to preserve my innocence, my lily whiteness; it is based on something very different, being familiar with vice, being one with it, to the point where I simply avoid most of it not because I’m trying to hold myself to some high standard, trying to avoid getting any dirt on my white robes, but simply because I’m bored with a lot of what tempts many people. Been there, done that, in this life or in some previous one, so to speak. I avoid many things people call “evil” just because it’s banal, pointless, simpleminded or uninteresting to me, not because I am exercising some sort of rigid discipline to avoid “temptation”.

It’s a strange sort of approach to virtue which is really a form of worldliness. I don’t drink (very much) not because I am trying to be virtuous but because I dislike the taste of alcohol; I don’t do drugs just because I’d rather do other things, like meditate, etc., but I have nothing against those who take psychoactive drugs in a mindful way, I have plenty of friends who do. I’m not motivated by large amounts of money because it gives you diminishing returns; after you have your basic needs covered, having more money doesn’t incrementally add much to your happiness. And should it seem necessary or worthwhile I certainly would break rules, and I do, quite a lot; I don’t hold to rules arbitrarily but rather to a principle of awakeness. Still, if I don’t see a good reason to break a rule, I probably won’t, because what’s the point? I don’t have a need to rebel any more than I have a need to conform. I think of this, essentially, as related to earlier comments about Eastern vs. Western ideas of virtue; the idea of being “corrupted” coming more from a Western notion of virtue as being “avoiding vice”, being innocent, being a naif; whereas in the East, particularly in schools like Zen, virtue is conceived of more as being skillful, on the ball, savvy.

Of course I don’t claim to be actually incorruptible or without vices or ego or bad habits, etc.; I have plenty of those. In fact I depend on them, I don’t run away from them. I look them in the face, I AM them. So, to the extent possible, I am already so steeped in my own darkness, darkness that goes deep to the whirling void at the bottom of reality, that the idea of being “corrupted” just seems funny — corrupted by what? I’m not naive about the nature of the world, in fact I’m already corrupted, I see and feel it all the time, I accept it and I live with it and through it. I feel more criminal than the criminals — I don’t think of myself as saintly, but rather the king of the crooks; but I’ve learned to play the game better than ordinary crooks, because I skip the stealing part, because it’s pointless. If my behavior looks like virtue in some cases, so be it; but I’m not trying for that. And I let myself follow “temptation” all the time; as I said above, I’m willing to transgress certain boundaries, I’ll break some rules if it seems appropriate, and if that looks like vice to some people, so be it as well. I’m not overly concerned with those labels. Ultimately, I’m just trying to pay attention and not be too wasteful, if at all possible, because wasting life/reality (which includes wasting the life/reality of “others” as well as myself, since there ultimately is no strict boundary between me and you) is, quite simply, about the only true crime I can really think of.

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October 31st, 2009

Watching old Cary Grant movies on Roku/Netflix makes me think about the odd realignment of what people think of as “snobbery” in America; time was, films depicted the sophisticated, urban American as upper class, wealthy, with a Republican, patrician manner. And voting patterns matched this; rural white people were willing to vote in large numbers for Democrats (at least in some elections) as recently as Jimmy Carter. Now, however, TV, movies, blogs, etc., depict “snobbish” urban Americans as upper middle class (instead of upper class), liberal, and Democratic, and the rural poor have, strangely, aligned themselves with the party of the wealthy.

Of course, well-educated urban areas have always been more liberal, but it’s strange that the term “snob”, which people used to apply primarily to the conservative upper class now seems to be applied primarily to the educated urban middle class.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure, but I have some ideas. In the 60’s, Ivy League schools dramatically expanded their financial aid programs; this changed, for example, Harvard’s student body from predominantly wealthy to predominantly middle- to upper-middle class; this expansion of affordability of the school was correlated with an increase in average test scores: these schools became smarter and more middle-class. With this shift came a shift in the perception of the “elite”: as the typical Ivy League student became more middle class, middle class aesthetics, dress, and manners became, oddly enough, more symbolic of being part of this elite. When I was in college, most of my classmates dressed casually, almost self-consciously trying to avoid appearing stereotypically patrician, and even my classmates from wealthier backgrounds tended to hide this fact, for the most part. You can see this shift in perception very clearly in Whit Stillman’s hilarious depiction of the fading pre-college debutante scene in Metropolitan, in which upper class, Ivy League-bound teenagers subtly but unmistakably begin to recognize the passing from dominance of their class, and its replacement with a newer, smarter, more successful group of people from “normal” backgrounds. But even as Ivy League students began to shift their perceptions, so too did the public at large; the word “elite” no longer applies to the super wealthy so much as the well-educated, bright, urban populations of the coasts.

At the same time, of course, the Republican Party shifted its rhetorical strategy. In an attempt to find a way to gain popular appeal, the party came up with a strategy based on various powerful populist ideas; freedom, small government, but in addition, as a way of appealing to at least some of the rural poor, they started to champion small-minded religious fundamentalism. Although the poor still votes primarily Democratic, the rural white poor now votes Republican; a historic and rather odd shift. What the Democrats have failed to recognize is they need to clearly articulate that Republican policies are not about freedom so much as they are about lack of accountability; they’re not about increasing the freedom of the public, they’re about decreasing public scrutiny of what large corporations are doing. However, something strange happened along the way; old Establishment Republicans lost control, to a large extent, of the party they built; and the rural poor, who outnumber them, have largely taken over. Ironically, this caused a large number of former Establishment Republicans to vote Democratic in the last election; it’s hard to know whether this is a harbinger of a permanent realignment of the wealthy elites with the liberal “elites”, reunifying the Ivy League with the upper classes, or if this was a one-time phenomenon which we’ll see reversed in future elections. Unless the Democrats find a new populism, however, the “elite coastal snob” moniker may continue to hurt Democratic attempts to reach out to the heartland.

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October 29th, 2009

I’m not sure if the structure of my desire is similar or different from other people, but one thing I’ve long noticed is that I desire others not only for their own desirability to me, but based on their desire for me. This isn’t to say I haven’t desired people who haven’t seemed to be interested in me overtly; but I certainly only desire people who I think harbor some regard for me, whether it is overt or I imagine it to be covert. Desire is a necessary, though not by itself sufficient, condition for me to desire in return; and when I discover or realize that their desire is insufficient, that’s when my desire drops or disappears entirely. It’s as though the fact that someone is interested in me is itself a quality I admire; I literally think, if this person doesn’t desire me, then they’re not the sort of person I want. Perhaps that’s a rather egotistical or solipsistic element to my desire, but this happens at some level below conscious thought, so there’s not much I can do about it. But it’s also, I suppose, that a large component of my desire is how I imagine making the other person feel, how I imagine giving them happiness — it turns me on to think about the other person being turned on; without that, what’s the point? So there are both egotistical and generous components to this.

As for my own opinion of myself: I suppose I think of myself as very desirable, but I also think only certain people can really appreciate that, and I (involuntarily) reserve my desire for them.

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October 29th, 2009

Magda O writes about porn:

Sometimes I feel like I am the only person in the world who doesn’t watch porn. I don’t watch porn because I haven’t found any porn I enjoy and I really really want to watch porn!

I wrote a comment on that post which I will repeat here, with a few edits:

I’ve always loved looking at pictures of beautiful, naked women, and so I thought porn would be a natural extension of this; but when I finally saw what people think of as porn (movies, videos) I found it as utterly unarousing as watching a nature show. Though I am a man, for me, the mental element of seduction is essential; with still images I can create that element for myself, but with video or film, that element is typically replaced by an incredibly banal plot combined with what seem to me to be clinical pictures of the mechanics of sex both of which are, for whatever reasons perhaps peculiar to me, incredible turnoffs.

Even when I find myself fantasizing about women around me on the bus or subway, I have to say I don’t immediately jump to the mechanics of sex, but I start to imagine a world where the two of us become lovers in multiple dimensions, including the sexual. Perhaps one could say that my sexual fantasies always seem to involve a romantic or at least a seduction component, and perhaps that sets me apart from most men — and it certainly places me outside the market for most porn.

This is not to say I don’t find any films or videos arousing — I do, but they’re usually not porn videos. It has to have some element of seduction, of intrigue, of persuasion, perhaps.

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October 28th, 2009

I went to see MeKaniKdolls perform tonight at the Sapphire Lounge, a cozy little bar in Soho just off of Houston. They (Jess Ramsay and Seyhan Musaoglu) combine electronic/experimental/noise/music and performance using electronic devices which allows Seyhan to modulate and produce sound correlated with her body movements; they also often include film projection and other multimedia elements, though not at this performance. I’ve always loved, for some reason, this sort of experimental/noise/improvised music; for me it means something that can takes one beyond boundaries, outside the outlines of the room, the shadows of our skin, even past ordinary time, yet it is also concrete, embodied; particularly when combined with body movement/sensors which allow physical movement to correlate with the sound. Their work reminds me a little of my friend Atau Tanaka’s work with Sensorband.

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October 18th, 2009

Orion asked us to give her our crazy thoughts on 2012, so here is my theory.

The world already ended in 2000. We’re living in a vast virtual reality simulation created in the far future by the descendants of the few survivors of the Great Y2K Apocalypse to imagine what would have happened had, contrary to all predictions, nothing much happened when the computers rolled over to the year 00.

The creators of this simulation decided they wanted to fuck with us (the simulated inhabitants), of course… so they’ve thrown in all sorts of crazy, inconceivably improbable events into our simulation, things too ludicrous to have credibility, hoping that some of us will “wake up”, once we realize that our “reality” is far too fantastical and unrealistic to be believed — i.e., Bush v Gore, hanging chads, the World Trade Center destroyed by terrorists wielding box cutters, then, contrary to all reason, we wage war against a country that had nothing to do with said destruction, etc., etc… culminating (so far) with a black man being elected President of the United States, and, of course, now, balloon boy.

So what happens in 2012? Whatever the hell the programmers want to happen to us. It is going to be damn good, though, and even more fantastic than what has already happened since 2000; because I think they’ve got a competition going on between them to top each other with each successive absurdity.

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October 14th, 2009

One thing I wanted to clarify about my “bad boys” post, yesterday; I said that I don’t do things for people because I want to be “nice” — which is true. But I do things for people, all the time, and I find it very satisfying. It’s not that I don’t feel sympathy for people at all; like most people, I feel sympathy and affection for people (and in the case of romantic love, I feel tremendous emotion and passion, see below); but I don’t do things for other people for that reason, for the most part; it doesn’t play a large role in my motivational structure. What motivates me is something else — an aesthetic sense of flow, of what feels right, of trying to reduce waste, of wanting to help create something beautiful and interesting in the world. Helping people, attending to the needs of others (while not, of course, ignoring my own), strikes me as simply the most sensible way to live. So while I am not strongly motivated by any feelings of sympathy I might feel, I am strongly motivated to help others in many situations.

This may sound rather cold; in a way, it is, but as I said before it’s not that I don’t feel things for others; I do, of course, especially people close to me. But the reason I think I act this way is that it’s a kind of impartiality; that is, if someone does something bad to me, so I would have reason to dislike them — that doesn’t mean I will then try to “get back” at them. Unless there’s some reason why I should do something about it (i.e., the person is harming others so I need to intervene in order to stop that, etc.), I tend to simply withdraw my help or support, etc., as I wrote below — but even that isn’t done in anger, it’s simply because I am going to turn towards other parts of the universe (people, etc.) where I think I can be more effective or helpful, where I won’t have to fight against the tide, so to speak. However, even if someone has slighted me or otherwise attacked me, I might still help them if I think that help is necessary or useful at that moment.

In ancient times there was a proscription against samurai killing in anger; if one kills someone (which is a terrible act, of course), you should do it not because of anger, but because you are forced to, in some sense. I think the same applies to my sense of helping others; I don’t do it because I feel sympathy, even if I do, but because I feel it is aesthetically beautiful, it contributes to the world, it makes sense, it fits. And I’d do it even if I don’t like you.

Love is something else, on the other hand — I love with tremendous passion and emotion. Love seems to me to be something different from compassion as I’m defining compassion, above; it’s a domain where feeling and sentiment are very important. Love is not just a matter of aesthetic beauty, it’s very particular, it’s about the unknowable, mysterious Other, someone in your life who is both inseparable from you and yet radically unknowable in their entirety, it’s not comprehensible, it’s not necessarily practical or logical. I don’t really have a theory about love or why it seems to be a place where feeling is both paramount and seems to me to be necessary; but it is somehow different from the case of compassion, for me. So, in a way, I don’t think of love and compassion as the same thing; romantic love is a kind of insanity, but a necessary, wonderful one; compassion is an expression of beauty, of interdependence, of interconnectedness, but for me is less about feeling than about natural expression of existential reality.

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