synthetic zero


January 31, 2003

Some things about the secret of the universe:

1) Can't say what it is (at least not completely. Not that it's actually a secret)

2) It's not the end, it's the beginning (i.e., what you find when you find it is the beginning of life, not the end of a search)

3) It doesn't solve all problems, it just reframes all problems so they're not really problems anymore --- at least not problematic problems

4) It is retroactive

5) Finding it isn't something that happens at a moment in time (even if something happens at a moment in time, that's just an event. The secret of the universe isn't confined to that moment, and the moment is just something nice that happens. It isn't the main thing)

6) The secret of the universe isn't to be found in any single place or at any specific moment in time, or in any idea or concept, or any picture, or any declaration, or any text, or contained within words, pictures, or things (and yet, if you follow any of those things to their source, it is there, and none of those things are actually separate from their source)

7) How do I know all this? I'm not claiming to know all that much. I do happen to know these few things about the secret of the universe, that's all. The secret is inexhaustible, after all. You can't ever know everything about it, because the moment you know something about it, it isn't it anymore, it's just an idea you have about it.

January 30, 2003

When you discover the secret of the universe, it at first feels like a tremendous personal discovery --- like people falling in love, they always think they're the first to have ever experienced it --- love feels so fantastic and intense that it has that quality --- no one else could have ever felt this way --- it seems. The secret of the universe has this taste to it as well... it seems like something that is so powerful and profound that it surpasses any and all previous personal achievements --- sort of a super-achievement. But of course, like love, with maturity one realizes that this discovery isn't something any one being can "have" --- in fact, the impression that it ever could have been held by one's self in the small sense was just the dying gasp of that self: as it began to recognize its true nature it tried one last time to grab a hold of something that in fact is totally beyond its grasp (and beyond grasping of any kind by any thing). One recognizes not only that it isn't yours alone, but that it's everyone's, it is everywhere, it is everything, and it has always been that way. It's not something that you can chalk up as a victory for yourself --- it's not even really extra-ordinary --- it's in fact super-ordinary (though it is still superlative in every way at the same time). Super-ordinary yet super, but super in a way that no one can claim as their own (yet in another sense it is truly theirs in a way that nothing else could ever be).

So, you ask, what is the secret of the universe?

January 27, 2003

How do you interpret a feeling you've never felt before? It might seem something like other feelings; i.e., you could relate it to other feelings, but nevertheless the specific combination of sensations is really quite unique and difficult to fully describe. When faced with this problem it becomes clear that many of us have a sort of directory of sensations and their putative "meanings" --- ah, this feeling means I am afraid, and I need to avoid the thing I am afraid of; this means I love this woman, this is sexual desire, this is good tasting food, this is that satisfied feeling you get after doing something healthy like exercise, etc. But when you have a unique, new feeling --- one that might generally feel "good" or "bad" but is nevertheless sufficiently different that it doesn't drop neatly into the catalog, what then? What about "when I think of so-and-so, my teeth hurt, but it feels good." What the hell is that supposed to mean? (And does it have to "mean" something? Why have feelings at all if they are equivalent to meanings?) It's difficult to interpret a feeling you've only had with respect to one situation --- there are no guideposts, no shared community literature (everyone seems to talk about feelings like hatred, fear, romantic love, etc., all of which are mysterious enough, but who talks about that good-teeth-hurting feeling?)

January 26, 2003

Went to see an exhibit for Architecture for Humanity with Natalie today. The subject matter was the results of a contest to design mobile AIDS treatment clinics for sub-Saharan Africa. There were many different designs --- quite a variety. Interestingly, the project will not end with the presentation of the results of the contest --- the top four teams are actually going to go to Africa and try to develop one or more of the designs, in consultation with African aid workers, NGOs, and doctors, build a prototype and field test it. Very impressive.

Afterwards Natalie and I had lunch and we discussed many topics. One of them was the subject of children. A lot of my friends either don't want to have children or don't feel that having children is a high priority for them. Some of them cite, for example, the terrible state of the world today, or overpopulation --- others simply believe that one ought not to cave in to conventional societal pressures. I certainly agree that having children cannot in any sense be considered a "meaning of life" or a purpose of life, per se, and should not be taken as a given without consideration. However, I myself do want to have children, though I realize that this will have a cost, both in terms of the time it will take away from me being able to contribute to the world, and the cost of the resources my descendants will consume in their lives.

So the real question, to me, becomes a matter of pragmatism: do I believe that it is more likely than not that my children will contribute more to the world, will do more to help things, by their existence, than if they did not exist? Enough to make up for the resources they will consume and the time and effort they will take to raise? I believe the answer to this calculation is, for me, yes. I believe my children are likely to be worth their cost to the world, so to speak. I certainly don't believe that one ought to have children just because people expect you to: clearly I think one should weigh every decision carefully, from scratch as it were. However, for me, the calculation comes out in favor of having children. On the other hand, I don't think I'd want to have more than two --- two seems perfectly adequate to maintain replacement population growth.

My father has the same opinion; one thing he told me once was that one of the most important things one could do to help the world is to help fill it with good people --- and thus, it was a good idea to have children and do one's best to help them grow into good people. "The world needs more good people," as he put it half-jokingly.

Can I be certain that my kids will be good people? (Setting aside the definition of "good" for the moment) I certainly can't be certain. But I have faith that the odds are in my favor in that respect; and I like to gamble when the deck is stacked that way.

January 24, 2003

The neuroscience of suicide.

David sends me: printing three-dimensional biological organs with inkjet printers.

Heather Anne Halpert sends me An Introvert's Lexicon.

Kenneth came over today and we redesigned the home page of one of his websites, exactingaction.org. It's just a placeholder for now, but the rollover effects we came up with are kind of amusing.

January 22, 2003

There's a certain problem with impatience (when you are trying to create something). The urge to get something down on paper (or electronically) before you have really given yourself (the universe?) time to tap into the fullness of the idea (world). The idea (world) cannot be built up from scraps, bit by bit, that you write down; it must come forth larger than anything you can record, so that you are only able to dimly bring forth fragments. Those fragments will seem much more real, however, if they come from something larger --- you can always tell if the storyteller is gasping for breath, unable to give you more than just a glimpse, but wishing to say a thousand, a million times more than can be said.

He lay in bed, panting. The day had been spent in fitful slow phrases of movement --- each sequence of time a little rivulet, pouring slowly and deliberately (must not miss anything, even the slightest detail!): step, breathe, look to the left, feel the leg, see the dry sunlight falling through the bars of the window, touch the book, stop --- had he forgotten something? No, he thought to himself, let's move on --- another step, feel the breath, the rustle of the sleeve against the arm, nothing to worry about because we aren't missing a thing, pick up the book, feel the pages against the fingers. He was able to move more quickly but somehow nothing had felt urgent that day, so he had spent it carefully, more carefully than he ever had before. He knew he was prone to rushing --- not today. But now, after the day was over, he felt out of breath, not from the physical exertion but from a sense of giddiness about something that he felt was neither something to wait for in his future nor quite yet fully realized in the present moment. The world already felt changed, yet nothing had changed yet.


January 21, 2003

One of my chief problems is my multitude of interests. I am currently trying to read several things: a book by Derrida, a book by Deleuze and Guattari, a book of Zen koans, and some papers describing current progress in loop quantum gravity. I feel quite seriously that if I had many identical clones my life would be a lot easier. We could each agree to specialize in one of our main fields of interest, and get a lot more done. Even in love, I wouldn't be jealous: as long as I felt the women we loved were being well-loved by at least one of us, that would be perfectly adequate. (When I think about it, I am least jealous of men whom I feel are the best suited for a given woman I am interested in --- I am much more jealous of men I don't think are as worthy of the woman in question. The fact that I wouldn't be jealous of myself I suppose illustrates a certain lack of humility --- but I figure, if the woman is interested in me, I must be a good match for her, in return. I --- or one of my clones).

January 17, 2003

In response to my post a few days ago, Jim Flanagan of Everything Burns writes:

I am commonly accompanied by similar thoughts.

Have you ever been canoeing or kayaking, dipped an oar in the water and watched the neatly formed vortices roll of the blade, and continue off into the water for some distance? That's how I like to think of myself; a distinct feature, for a while, in the surface of what is. A place where the universe curls up in an interesting way, then eventually uncurls.

Jeff Thompson, also in response to the same post, writes this:
Every calm moment, every day nowadays, I return to consider this.

This of course has also to do with the perception of time. In the ordinary picture where we are a point "getting stuff", I am the point which moved through time from yesterday, the object that accumulated that stuff. But in the "perspective on a fullness", I presently experience the display of those memories.

If there is time, it is not the series of "frames in the movie" that appear to be contiguous one after the other in order from yesterday. Rather time is what activates this moment to give this moment's experience its intensity.

How to go deeper?

I'm actually finding I'm liking this show Odyssey 5 on Showtime, which is somewhat surprising, since most of these cable science fiction shows are poorly written and badly acted. But, if you get past some of the standard TV sci-fi cheesiness, the writing here is actually surprisingly compelling, and I have to say that I've always been a fan of Peter Weller, for some reason. Watching that show, I begin to think hey, TV can actually be good. But then I watch a couple of movies like Swordfish on video on demand and... nope, the ratio of good to bad hasn't changed.

One recent episode of Odyssey 5 started with the following quote:

The future will be better tomorrow.
-Dan Quayle                           


January 14, 2003

The ordinary picture is something like this: we sit here and slowly accumulate things, abilities, capacities, liabilities, problems, and so forth. We're like a point that "gets" stuff, attached to it. But what if, instead, we thought of every one of those capacities, abilities, problems, and so forth, as merely tiny shards, thin slivers of a universal ground of being that gave rise to everything and everyone whatsoever? I.e., rather than thinking of us as built up over time, we think of ourselves as creatively sculpted from partial views of something that we can never fully separate from, from a fullness which overflows us and connects us fundamentally with everything whatsoever. The sculpting can change and shift, and is more a matter of perspective than it is a matter of accumulation. What "we" are is a perspective, in that view, rather than a thing. There are no boundaries.

January 10, 2003

The outlines of the Bush plan appear to be taking shape. We're facing mounting deficits, and an irresponsible tax cut plan already passed which would lock in these deficits for a long time to come. However, most of these tax cuts won't take effect until long after Bush's first term is over --- and if the economy is in really bad shape (and if the Democrats retake the White House), they might never take effect. So, Bush II, proxy for the oligarchy, must act now to lock in those cuts.

So, he proposes a plan that is so gigantic that even after it is "negotiated down" it will be likely to dramatically worsen the deficit problem. The only possible place this could impact are programs like Social Security and Medicare. Is this an attempt by the oligarchy not only to dramatically increase their own power (elimination of the estate tax is yet another way of doing this), but also to raze long-standing social programs to the ground, not by voting them away (politically risky) but by starving them of funds? After all, during wartime, the military is going to get increased budgets, so these shortfalls will have to be made up somewhere.

This whole strategy is quite clever: a hyped-up war against Iraq to distract the nation and seize control of Congress, and now, quick, before they lose control again, lock in these insane tax windfalls for the wealthy. There's nothing to say about this other than it is subverting the very structure of our body politic: the nation is at grave risk. This Administration is doing more to destroy the country than perhaps any previous Administration in the history of our country: on so many fronts --- domestic, foreign policy, etc.

January 9, 2003

Remember video on demand? That technology that was going to revolutionize television? There was a lot of talk about this is the mid-90's, and then, for some reason, it seemed to disappear from the map. Technological limitations, delays in upgrading systems, and failures of interactive television trials didn't help it. But now, oddly, and quietly, it's actually being rolled out in some areas, in particular in areas served by Time Warner cable. I happen, by accident, to be living in an apartment served by Time Warner cable, at least for the moment, and I noticed while surfing the channels that there were these new video on demand services available as a part of my cable/internet package.

So I tried it --- there are the predictable for-pay movie selections (but in this case you get to watch them starting whenever you want, and fast-forward and rewind them, just like a DVD), but most shows and movies on the movie channels in my package are available as part of a fixed monthly fee. I just watched an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that I had not seen, as well as A Beautiful Mind, a very fictionalized yet still rather interesting piece loosely based on the life of the mathematician John Nash. It really is quite a different experience, watching cable content on demand --- I really hadn't anticipated how different it would be. Normally, on the hundreds of channels available on my digital cable box, there is literally nothing on that I would want to watch. Video on demand changes that balance considerably; there are quite a few recorded programs that I actually do have at least some interest in watching. Perhaps the future is eventually arriving, bit by bit, after all. Of course, there are still major problems --- not to mention simmering debates about digital rights management, and so forth. But the technology will eventually arrive. It's interesting to wonder how this will change the nature of our interaction with our televisions and our computers.

January 5, 2003

Here's something I really like: Haribo Raspberries.

Going back to New York after spending quite a lot of time in Los Angeles. My brother got married --- it's rather surprising and strange to have new relatives suddenly. A whole family there, all of these people you never knew before, and now they're all, instantly, relatives, in some sense at least. A bit disconcerting at first, particularly when you weren't really involved in the process of this happening, but kind of interesting anyway. A glimpse into another world.

I will be writing more now that my vacationing, holiday-ing, and brother-marrying is over for the time being. Strange how little time one can have on vacation sometimes.

I have to say that I think it is a very good and important thing to have a lot of interesting books on the shelves for children to read. I don't mean children's books -- I mean literature, philosophy, art. I recall picking up a copy of a book by Claude Levi-Strauss when I was nine years old, reading it, and being utterly fascinated by the ideas. There's no reason to talk down to children, I think, or to expect little of them --- there's a lot they can understand and they think about which can still be very difficult even for an adult. In fact, despite the many real advantages of growing up, children have a certain manner of thinking that most adults would be better off if they had retained. My parents' bookshelves are filled with fascinating material which was instrumental in my own intellectual upbringing. They didn't foist it on me: it was just there, available, and I took advantage of it from time to time. Enough so to give me a sense of a larger world.

January 1, 2003

I'm not sure how much of a year this is going to be --- it seems to me to be potentially the darkest and most disastrous year in the history of our country.

I still sit dumbfounded at the policy of this Administration towards North Korea --- allowing them to produce nuclear material is perhaps one of the most reckless lapses one could imagine. A starving and desperate North Korea, devoid of anything but military power --- would they sell nuclear material to terrorists? Unlikely, yet a possibility that I would not want to risk. Yet the Adminstration has allowed relations with North Korea to deteriorate to the point where they're restarting their reactors --- it's mind-boggling. They must be stopped --- yet Bush still insists, lamely, that Iraq poses a greater threat to American security than North Korea does.

At this same juncture Clinton was willing to destroy the reactors from the air --- a last-resort option no doubt, and one that ought to be avoided if at all possible. But an option which appears to be something worth threatening if North Korea cannot be brought back to the negotiating table. Through diplomatic ineptitude and lassitude (ignoring the rising tensions there while worrying neurotically about Iraq), the Bush Adminstration has transformed North Korea into a clear and present danger to our national security. Way to go. Happy New Year.