synthetic zero
email me


January 27, 2000

Jimmy sent me a link to a potentially amazing new device (if it really works); this thing stimulates the vestibular system using tiny electromagnetic fields to simulate the feeling of motion. You could add this to 3D environments, games, virtual reality simulations, etc. It seems to me that this could greatly enhance the overall VR experience; virtual reality has yet to really catch on, but something like this might really be able to reinvigorate the field.

Paul (Alamut, 26 January entry) talks about Gregory Bateson's concept of schismogenesis, the tendency for individuals to move apart through a systematic and divergent interaction (a sort of widening spiral of repulsive feedback). For example, the classic romantic tragedy: one person has a fear of commitment, the other a fear of abandonment, and a movement closer elicits a pulling back, countered by rising panic, leading to further withdrawal, etc. There are many other variations of this theme, however; including, as Paul mentions, a sort of inverted schismogenesis "with the signs reversed" (falling in love).

As a result of this, I found this interesting survey article by Jeffrey W. Bloom which discusses his study (search for "schismogenesis") in which he found that discussions between students would sometimes follow a course in which both sides took up polarized and divergent positions which became more complex as the interaction progressed. Bloom points out that Bateson called this sort of interaction symmetric, in which the two sides take up antagonistic points of view. Another sort of interaction involves an active and a passive participant (i.e., a lecturer and a passive student, or a dominant-submissive relationship), which Bateson called complementary interactions; the danger here is that the resultant understanding can be less complex and possibly too rigid or inflexible. Most interestingly, however, Bloom mentions a third possibility, in which:

...participants engage in processes more characteristic of negotiation ... Although disagreements and knowledge claim challenges may occur, the process is not competitive. Rather, participants engage in clarification, justification, elaboration, or further inquiry in response to disagreements and challenges.
This middle ground, which Bateson called "reciprocal", tends towards optimization rather than either divergence or domination. Like complementary interactions, understanding is built up into more and more sophisticated forms, but my feeling is that this sort of process would tend towards results which accommodate and incorporate the most forces and factors, and lead to the most surprising and interesting results in the long run. Optimization is often non-intuitive at first, but is the most likely strategy to produce results which we perceive as high-quality.

January 24, 2000

Strange new Japanese inventions.

January 19, 2000

A Wired article about Bill Etra, one of the co-founders of The Kitchen, a black-box experimental performance space in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The Kitchen will be hosting a performance on March 15-18 (scroll down) of Love Diamond by Miranda July, with whom I have been working recently. Well worth checking out (both her performance and The Kitchen in general.)

Finally back in Portland after a week and a half in NYC. It's great to be back. I like New York, although I have to say it doesn't seem to have quite the same crazy energy that I loved when I was younger --- my parents used to live in the Village before I was born (I was actually conceived in a Greenwich Village loft), and we visited practically every summer when I was growing up. The "new" New York is safer and more civilized, but there's a bit of that old "anything goes" kind of feeling that I miss. I think it's hard to sustain that when everything is so damn expensive in the city.

January 15, 2000

Hung out with the fabulous Farai Chideya yesterday. Farai is a journalist and author of Don't Believe The Hype and The Color of Our Future, books which debunk racial stereotypes and investigate the future of race relations from the perspective of young Americans. Farai is currently working hard on the launch of the women's cable channel and Web site, Oxygen, and is also working on putting together an entertainment-related Internet start-up company. She also used to occasionally co-anchor the ABC News show World News Now, a lighthearted ultra-late night news program; the first time I turned on my TV in the middle of the night and saw Farai there I was quite surprised and delighted. There's something very strange about seeing someone you know on TV; it doesn't seem normal --- you're used to relating people who host TV shows as impersonal beings, disconnected from any sort of intimacy, not real people in a way, but stand-ins or signifiers for people. But seeing Farai felt so manifestly real it gave me the sense that the television had suddenly become 3-D or something. She was really there, because of that personal connection.

Jouke has launched, after an era of being hosted as a subdiretory of, which seems to be having major problems right now. If you have trouble remembering how to spell that, either bookmark it or just intone: "Notes, Quotes, Provocations, And Other Fair Use" (somehow I can remember that when the acronym escapes me). His entire weblog is not yet copied there, but he says eventually it will be.

Speaking of NQPAOFU, Jouke starts the new site off with a discussion of the brilliant work of the Canadian animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren, and how it influenced him when he was in his teens. I first saw McLaren's work when I was in college, and I was also impressed by it; the scratch-animations (i.e., Blinkity Blank), his work with movement, music, and dance (the remarkable Pas de Deux), and his other fascinating animations as well. McLaren worked with the relationship between the visual, the musical, and time in a unique and interesting way; showing rhythm and movement in both visual and auditory modalities, and playing with the resulting interactions in fascinating ways which opened up worlds which still deserve further exploration.

New York is a city obsessed with success, yet at the same time it seems to be stuck in various levels of the past in some ways, a past which sometimes hinders the city's efforts to be a success. There is a palpable preoccupation with where you fit in to some measure of human worth: how fabulous is your job, how prestigious was your school, how much money do you make. The incredible economic pressure of having to make the absurdly high rent ($1300 for a 300 square foot one-room studio, $3000 for a 700 square foot apartment), prevents success as measured in traditional ways from ever floating too far from mind.

Yet I think it is this very obsession with traditional measures of success that makes it difficult for New York to really compete equally with the West Coast in terms of generation of new ideas, new companies, and new industries. Even in the Silicon Valley, which also has high rents and lots of rich people, it's possible to think of a waiter in a cafe as a potentially interesting person --- certainly in Portland this is the case; yet here in New York there seems to be a stratification, a sort of unconscious class system, a self-contained insularity to the different groups and subcultures. But this also militates against the sort of free-form association of people, new ideas, and so forth which is a rich source of new cultural and new economic forms. In the Valley, people are not judged by their success level and the schools they went to so much as their ideas and their ability --- and even failure is considered a badge of honor: among the venture capitalists of Palo Alto it is apparently presumed that those who think big and fail are a better risk than those who have never tried anything. It's hard to break into New York, yet it is New York that is the poorer for it. The barriers to entry are a bit too high and the barriers to sustainability are as well; too high for its own good. A city with so many brilliant people ought to be doing better than playing second fiddle to the output of the Left Coast, but this seems to be a location hampered by its own preconceptions about the order of things and the best way to get things done. Having said all that, I will add that there is a lot happening here --- but the city definitely could be doing better.

January 12, 2000

Susan and I had a wonderful dinner with Heather Anne Halpert and Tiffany Lee Brown in Williamsburg (the new trendy part of Brooklyn). We talked about New York, Portland, and Los Angeles; relationships and hangups; sibling dynamics; work in new media; age and self-confidence; and other subjects. Heather Anne and Tiffany were both recovering from the flu, but Heather Anne was delightful as usual (despite her protestations that she is not much for socializing), and Tiffany was much more up than she thought she might be. She was relieved to be transitioning to the world of freelance work after having some conflicts in the world of working as an employee. She is still doing work for the same Internet company: but now as a freelancer.

January 10, 2000

Went to see a wonderful concert of new music at the Miller Theatre of the Columbia University School of the Arts. Eleven works were performed, all by different contemporary composers, ranging from the quirky and delightful There Goes My Hat Again Flying, an improvisational piece by the young composer-performer Tom Chiu, to the formally complex and darkly beautiful work-in-progress currently titled Fugitive Star by the accomplished Augusta Read Thomas. It was just very good luck to be visiting New York when the Miller Theatre was presenting such a wide variety of work by different composers all on one day.

The concert was timed to coincide with a conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and in addition to the performances, the director of the Miller Theatre, George Steel, who has been championing new music at the theatre, was there along with a few other moderators to discuss the work and have conversations with the composers. The interesting thing was the fact that these folks, even while trying to promote new music, also seemed to be presuming that the audience would find the music difficult. They kept asking the audience to "listen with open ears"; an admirable admonition but it seemed a bit out of place (aren't they preaching to the converted, at least to that particular group?)

The other thing that struck me was the fact that some of the pieces (though not all) were traditional in some ways, and the whole thing felt quite highbrow and genteel. By contrast, in Portland, there was a weekly concert series called Aural Fixation that ran for a couple of years featuring new music of all sorts, and it was indeed experimental: abstract electronic music, ambient music, experimental jazz, classical, and many other formats were presented. The music often stretched the limits of one's definition of music, yet the atmosphere was quite informal, the venue ramshackle and funky. This is not to say that I don't like the studied institutional elegance of the Miller Theatre. But it was interesting to me that a bunch of rag-tag musicians in Portland could put on a very impressive selection of work with virtually no monetary support and with a completely sincere and plain approach. I loved the concert at Miller Theatre, but sometimes I wonder if the people who put on these concerts aren't limiting their audience through an unconscious assumption that this is music meant only for a certain type of ivory tower intellectual. Even the time they presented it, 4pm, seemed to assure that only academics (or tourists) would end up seeing it.

January 9, 2000

On vacation in New York City for the week. So far, one of the more memorable events was seeing a young woman wearing a long dark coat walking briskly north on a particular street in Manhattan, quite studiously intent on her trajectory. She seemed familiar... since I am planning to visit Heather Anne while here, I thought at first that I was mentally projecting her face onto this unidentified woman, who by the time I had finished the thought was now quite a ways down the block. However, as I mulled over the distinguishing features of her quickly receding figure, her hair, her face, and so forth, I became increasingly convinced that it was not just that I was daydreaming or imagining things, but it was indeed Heather Anne Halpert, in the flesh, who had just zoomed past. By this time, however, she was about a block away and out of range of all but the most embarrasingly loud shout, so I let her disappear into the distance without any further exertions.

Later, however, I spoke with her on the phone and verified that she had indeed been walking on the very street where I was walking, at the specific time when I was passing through there with some other friends, on the way to brunch.

Went to see an impressive installation art exhibit of Issey Miyake's work. Among the more interesting elements were a room filled with fanciful crepe paper clothing attached to the ceiling by wires, with electric motors that caused them to suddenly dance up and down at different rates, and a series of works called A-POC (for "A Piece of Cloth") which consisted of a variety of elegant dresses and other garments knitted electronically by computer from tubes of fabric. The outfits could be built to order based on the specific individual preferences of the customer.

Also saw Sensation on its second-to-last day at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I was not particularly shocked, although I was slightly surprised to find that the piece which generated the most controversy (or about which Giuliani decided to generate the most controversy), Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, was in fact a radiant and colorful work, hardly something that one might imagine would generate much of a negative reaction (it provoked nearly none in England when it was first shown). I might further note that another of Ofili's works in the show has famous jazz artists' names painted onto balls of elephant dung: this if nothing else should make it rather clear that it is not particularly meant as a symbol of degradation but, as he says, more as a reference to the artist's African heritage.

I would agree with the reviews which say the show was somewhat uneven. However, I greatly enjoyed some work that a subset of people have found either vacuous or trivial; I felt that the physical presence of Damien Hirst's preserved and sometimes dissected animals conveyed in a visceral way (that a mere description cannot) the tremendous weight of our physical relationship with our bodies and with both life and death. It confronts us directly with the massive presence of death and in a strange way it also points at the life we're living by directing attention to the dynamic livingness that goes beyond just the static arrangement of atoms in our bodies: the swirling pattern of activity which does not have a strict boundary at our skin.

A similar theme is found in one of the other works I enjoyed a great deal, Marc Quinn's Self, a sculpture of his head he made out of a refrigerated mass of his own blood. Again, the subject here is not death so much as it is our limited conceptions of ourselves, the fact that we think that the stuff inside us is part of us (for example, our blood), yet when it is removed from our bodies it somehow becomes other, separate, and in some sense, lifeless. This is a sort of artistic or metaphorical reductio ad absurdum argument that there must be something about life or ourselves which is not captured by just thinking of who we are as just the position of the body's physical material. There is also the movement and dynamic interactions of a living system, interactions which fundamentally reach outside of every organism into and through and back from the environment.

January 5, 2000

Jimmy sends me a link to an interesting interactive toy developed at the MIT Media Lab.

From Slashdot: you can now even make plans for your own death online.

Been thinking more about how to create a meta-programming language that would be infinitely extensible (allowing you to arbitrarily add new programming concepts and constructs). Right now, programming a computer involves a lot of tedious and repetitive application of rules and patterns which the programmer must apply by hand; this meta-language would allow the programmer to explicitly express many of these rules and patterns so that she could focus on the high-level design rather than worrying about low-level implementation details. One could easily create optimization techniques that would allow you to create a simultaneously very fast and yet very readable program.

A first step in the creation of such a system might be to construct a super-macro language that would allow one to express not only pattern substitution but also procedures which could generate code (which could further be passed through the super-macro language). This language could also interpret and examine the code to look for patterns (for optimization) or to check for conditions. It would be far more powerful than existing macro languages, yet this could perhaps be relatively straightforwardly implemented.

January 3, 2000

Here we are in "the year 2000" --- as Susan points out, a year which for some reason seems to always be prefaced with the words "the year". Will we ever refer to this year as just "2000"? This reminds me of Heather Anne's comments (December 19th entry):

Murray's cheese shop on Bleeker street has a sign on the awning that says, "this is MURRAY'S CHEESE SHOP". It always makes me think how in a couple of years, it will be a quaint affectation to put "click here" on a button.

But somehow this year seems as though it will never lose its affectation. Will we always feel compelled to say "I remember that time I stubbed my toe back in the year 2000"?

Paul mentions (January 1 entry) that, despite our secret fears, we all made it after all, and we are alive: "The calculation to the milestone that we all did as childen, 'How old will I be then?' with its secret question (and hidden fear), 'Will I ever see it?' -- has been resolved. We made it and are seeing it, you and I." I don't know if we all did this calculation but I certainly did; in fact, I recall this very vividly; back in 1971, when my father was 35 and I was six, I thought --- how old will I be in the year 2000, which seemed to me to be an impossibly far-off time in The Future. And I was greatly relieved to realize, after a brief exercise in subtraction, that I would be the same age as my father was then, 35 (well, I'm still 34 as I type this, but whatever), in the year 2000, and I figured, hey, my dad isn't that old yet, and he still has a lot of life yet, probably, so I will be able to witness the Future and then some!

As Paul also points out, part of this is the unspoken fear of an early death; I have to admit feeling a strange combined sense of mild ecstasy and relief at making it to the 21st Century.

Why relief? The 20th Century is filled with so many terrible mistakes of humanity committed by practically every group at one time or another that, combined with its obvious successes, one has to feel somewhat relieved that it is finally over, and without much in the way of calamity or violence to mark its passing. It's good to have it behind us. Of course, people were similarly hopeful at the start of the 20th Century, just before the Titanic sank to start things off.