synthetic zero


July 31, 2001

The reason I like Andrei Codrescu is that he is equally cynical about the Communist world he grew up in under the dictatorship of Ceausescu as he is of the Western capitalist world he has spent his adult life in. Unlike many people, who seem only able to think in terms of polarities, i.e., if one side is wrong, then their enemies must be somehow on the side of goodness --- he is unblinking in his antagonism and ridicule of the excesses and stupidities of every side, including his own. He has, predictably, a fantastic sense of humor, perhaps because he has seen so much absurdity committed in the name of self-righteous justice and progress.

Why is it that we must presume that in any given fight there is always a good guy and a bad guy? Can't both sides be good, or, far more commonly, both sides be bad? Or, even more likely, can't both sides have a mixture of good and evil, stupidity and intelligence, sensitivity and numbness? It seems to me that the responsibility we all have is to fight stupidity, evil, and ignorance in ourselves and the people closest to us first, as well as in the people on the other side(s). Because, quite frankly, stupidity and evil are quite usually spread liberally amongst us all. Good intentions are a guarantor of nothing whatsoever. The Communists committed terrible crimes. That doesn't excuse the terrible crimes we committed using the excuse of fighting Communism, any more than the global greed and unsustainable practices of capitalism can ever excuse the crimes committed by the Communists. Fighting evil with evil is like trying to fight stupidity with stupidity. It's too bad that doesn't work, because it would be a hell of a lot easier if it did. We'd have attained paradise a thousand times over if that worked, given how much that strategy has been tried. And not just tried, but catapulted via monumental, Herculean efforts to the level of epic, historical, giga-farce.

I don't believe in evil. I believe in stupidity. I don't think there is such a thing as a "criminal mastermind". It is a contradiction in terms. What you have are simply different levels of stupidity. Subtler and subtler forms of it. Most criminals are incredible imbeciles; they give bank tellers stick-em-up notes written on the back of their personal checks, complete with name, address, and phone number. Corporate criminals are much more subtle, of course, but to the extent that they harm others and the world through their selfish and/or heedless activities, they are nevertheless still committing acts of stupidity --- failing to see the bigger picture, the sense in which we're all interconnected, the sense in which selfishness is a delusion based on a sentimental attachment to something without substance. Selfishness, on the other hand, does have certain system advantages: it encourages distributed computation, which is why centralized economies and politics never work well, and why demonizing selfishness per se is not the answer either. It's never either/or. It's always subtle. That's the way it is.

Now let's be clear, however. I am not saying I want to demonize demonization, either. There are times when stupidity is leveraged via the exercise of power to the extent that, despite my belief that behind all evil lies stupidity, you might as well call it evil. And at those times I'm all for fighting that, even if we have to make mistakes in so doing. We cannot be perfect, but we can at least be aware that we're not going to be perfect, and try our best to ameliorate the effects of our own stupidity even as we fight stupidity in others. That's all I hope for, and I think it is an almost, but thankfully not completely, unreachable hope.

July 30, 2001

I met Thomas Harlan, a close friend of my friend Sylvia Scheuring, while working on a Java project for Sylvia a few years ago. Thomas had mentioned that he was going to use my name for a character in one of his science fiction novels; I'd always assumed it was going to be a sort of cameo joke sort of role, but it turns out he's used my name for one of the main characters in his next novel, Wasteland of Flint, from a series to be titled In The Time of the Sixth Sun. I'm flattered, naturally, though a little apprehensive about seeing a character modelled loosely after me in a novel; of course, it's not really me, but I'm sure that while I'm reading it I will not be able to stop myself from occassionally thinking "that's not what I would say or think or do, etc." --- not that I'm complaining, he is portraying the character positively. But you know, it's always somewhat frightening to see how other people perceive you, even when fictionalized, even when in a good light. Darlene found this description of "my" character:

A short, slightly built Nisei (Japanese born in North America) with stringy back hair, a neat beard and mustache. His family is from New Yedo (our Seattle) on Anahuac (Earth). Wry, soft-spoken and confident, he and his ship are entrusted with carrying Andersson and her Company relief mission to Ephesus III. Unlike many of his fellow officers, he is entirely content with his honorable position and command.
That's a pretty amusing and mostly accurate-to-my-personality characterization. Though I'm not sure I like the "short, slightly built"; okay, maybe I do look that way, but I have done ten years of martial arts, and am reasonably strong, not to mention the fact that though I may be short for an American, I am tall for a Japanese person, and for some odd reason I don't psychologically think of myself as short (though I'm not entirely sure why that is). All right, enough of my unnecessary commentary; as I say, I think it's funny and I will just leave it at that: it's Thomas' book...

This morning I was thinking about the fact that people often tend to think of meditation as a sort of way of calming the mind, etc. At first this may be an effect of meditation, but the idea of meditation is not so much to reach or maintain a particular state (i.e., calm, etc.) but rather to be as fully responsive as possible to the actual situation you're in at every moment. What we usually do is add excessively to our situation; ideas, interpretations, constructs, etc., that displace us from our actual situation, that add time and space, that remove us into a constructed idea of reality. I should clarify, though, that it's not that constructs are the a problem so much as the fact that we forget that they're constructs and thus give them excessive power. So meditation is a way of coming back to the ground of our being, not by denying or suppressing thoughts or constructs, but by allowing reality to come forward as the gigantic vastness that it is, and not pretending that our little ideas of what it is or who we are or what our situation are is the whole story. It's simple: to be responsive in a way that goes beyond your ordinary idea or even your ordinary notion of self, time, space, etc.

July 27, 2001

I keep thinking there's something I left out of my comments about death, so here are a few other thoughts.

When I say I feel at home in the nightmare world, I mean to say that I feel as though I am a demon who just barely changed his ways at the last moment, and chose a path of compassion instead. That's why I feel so close to the demons, so like them. My compassion is a ruthless sort of compassion; it arises because I have made the steely cold calculation that compassion happens to be the most ruthless path of them all. Because being selfish, being a demonic demon, is actually a weak position; if you are self-interested then you're caught up in a strange delusion about the world, a sentimental notion built upon nothing substantial. So instead, I take the ruthless path, and I come upon compassion as the answer. But I still feel like a criminal who has just granted himself a reprieve at the last instant, and with that also given the world a reprieve from my own potential depradations. Whenever I see a movie with a scene where someone realizes the error of their ways, like some bad guy who suddenly sees the light, that is the only time I ever cry when watching a film. I don't cry at sentimental scenes, or scenes of sadness or loss --- I cry when someone sees their mistake, when they repent. Because that's the person I identify with, for some reason, though in this lifetime at least I don't think I've committed any terrible sins (so far at least) --- still I feel I carry the weight of some huge crime I committed long ago.

Another thing. What we strive for is life, and though I talk about death and how it has carved out life for us all, it's also true that there is something unutterably beautiful about the ways we try to stay alive, and we all have a responsibility to be alive, to live fully, I think. Giving up isn't a real choice, because that would be a cop-out evolutionarily speaking. Furthermore, of course so much death is completely unnecessary and wasteful, not only to be lamented but to be prevented if at all possible. When death comes for me I hope it is not because I have made a stupid error or given up, but rather because I have completely burned myself up so there is nothing left: I hope it is when I have done and been as much of who I was supposed to be or who I really am as I could be. Then and only then would it be a good time to die, to make way for others. As the famous Hasidic tale goes (according to Martin Buber):

Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said "In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’"

July 26, 2001

Big long-term potential fallout from the election: the encouragement by the FCC of more centralized control of the media by megalopolies.

Arianna Huffington sounds more and more like a Democrat: she's lauding the efforts of the commendable Books Not Bars youth organization which has managed to score surprising victories against the prison-industrial complex and in favor of education and early intervention with a rare combination of clever protest strategies and articulate argument.

Re: death, this reminds me of the image of the Hindu goddess Kali, the seemingly strange combination of death/destruction and sexiness/life. But it is sex and death combined which have, over billions of years, created all of the beautiful diversity of complex forms of life we see around us.

I realized recently that I am comfortable in the nightmare world, it feels somehow like home to me. It's not a place where I am afraid, it's a place where I feel fearless; it's where I feel I can rise to become who I really am, a warrior. But it's strange --- though I protect people in the nightmare world, I don't feel separate or apart from it; it is that I am part of it: I am almost a demon myself, a demon's demon: that is to say, I scare the demons, I embrace them, I turn them into allies and friends and lovers and pets, or I cut them down if necessary, but only if necessary, but not with any personal animus, anger, or fear: only with a very slight regret. Of course, the nightmare world = this world = paradise, ultimately, it all depends on subtle shifts of perception, and it doesn't even require that.

Businesses propose controlling the Internet to make it more profitable by changing its free-wheeling design.

July 24, 2001

Not a joke: a physicist at University of Connecticut has come up with a proposal for bending spacetime to create a practical time machine. The technique does not involve the use of black holes or negative energy matter (as in the technique that the Caltech physicist Kip Thorne came up with in 1989), but rather uses light slowed down in a Bose-Einstein condensate moving in two directions along a circular path. Slowed light has much higher inertia than ordinary light, and therefore bends spacetime far more --- and using energies that are potentially attainable on Earth, using technology that is difficult to produce but within the realm of practical possibility, it looks theoretically possible to create light loops that bend spacetime enough to create the possibility of time travel. They plan to make a version of the machine that will be able to send subatomic particles through a time loop. Note that the machine doesn't allow people to travel back in time before the machine was invented; the earliest someone or something could come through the machine would be when the machine is first turned on. Nevertheless, this is the first time someone has proposed making a time machine or a time loop that might be feasible using known technology at reasonable energy levels.

July 22, 2001

Two faces of death.

We are all dependent upon the deaths of all the beings that preceded us. Evolution wouldn't have gotten very far if living beings were immortal. It isn't even advantageous for a species for its members to live arbitrarily long --- almost every species has a programmed process of aging and death which comes long before the time we would die if we simply allowed ourselves to "wear out". So evolution has dictated that it is advantageous for the species for us to die early, so to speak.

If living beings never died, there could be no progress --- reproduction past a very early stage would be a mistake, because we would be crowding the world with creatures that wouldn't die. Evolution could not happen --- everything would be frozen in time at the very beginning of the production of life. We owe our beautiful adaptations to living on Earth to the deaths of all of the unfit creatures that have inhabited the Earth for millions of years, and the deaths of our forebears who made room for us in the world by their exit.

Of course, our species has managed to come up with a radically new way of adapting: evolution of culture. Culture is made possible by the fact that we have evolved the ability to produce and share information in a recursive manner (we can think and communicate the idea "the banana that you gave me yesterday" --- an idea that is beyond the scope of other primates who have learned basic sign language --- the best they can manage is "give me a banana and an apple"). Thus we no longer need to die in order to evolve --- we can change the software rather than the hardware. Evolution of culture proceeds at a much more rapid pace, in many respects, than evolution of the genome. It's faster and cheaper, so to speak, to change our ideas and our modes of functioning than it is to wait for the millions of years it takes genetic evolution to produce new adaptations. So is death obsolete?

It seems to me that I still would like, at the appropriate time, to step aside to make room for my children and their peers to function. Even in the light of cultural adaptation, it's pretty clear that younger people still seem to be able to take and build upon the cultural advances of the previous generation with a greater degree of creativity and flexibility than the previous generation seems able to evolve themselves. That is, we tend to get stuck in ruts as we get older. I think it is possible to retain a great deal of flexibility even as we age --- but it is difficult, and eventually I think it seems worthwhile to just stop trying to hang on and just let the next generations have their turn. Still, it may be that as we evolve it will become less necessary for us to die quite as young as we do now. But I am content to die when it is appropriate for me to do so --- I don't think I'll be able to stay fresh and current forever, and I presume the next generations will eventually do a better job than I can (once they've matured) at taking the next steps and leaps both genetically and culturally.

July 18, 2001

Music industry execs are scratching their heads, wondering why music sales are down 5% this year. Now that music is controlled by giant conglomerates like Clear Channel, radio sucks big time. Centrally-controlled culture is not culture at all: it's stagnation. As Jared Diamond has pointed out, every culture tends to make mistakes, lose its way, etc. --- in order for culture to survive, it is helpful for nearby regions to be somewhat independent, so they can retain or develop cultural information that might be lost or missed by their neighbors. If radio is completely controlled by giant conglomerates, then there are far fewer opportunities for new music to catch on --- to bubble up from the vast array of possible sources that are spread across human civilization. There are great bands out there that aren't being heard, but this is because there are too few ways for these bands to become big: there's no natural process of filtering, bubbling up from below, that can happen. Local radio stations have their programming controlled by their giant owners: so local music never makes it. It is an inorganic system. The big joke of it all is: doing things this way is bad for business. Everybody can sense that mass music sucks right now. There's nothing new coming in.

Meanwhile, however, I went to Yoyo A Gogo yesterday and had a blast. There were good bands, mediocre bands, bad bands, but it was fun to see and hear it all. Khaela Maricich did a creative mix of singing and theater which was brash and funny and alive. There were folk bands and screaming punk bands all in one night. Excellent experience. So now you have to actually travel and listen to music in person, from bands who never get played on the radio, in order to really hear music. Like it always was, but it's more like that now than ever before.

July 16, 2001

Heh. (Susan thought of this).

New measurements provide strong support for the inflationary universe model of the early universe, in which the universe is hypothesized to have expanded incomprehensibly quickly in the early stages (much faster than the standard big bang models would have predicted). In this model, the universe that we see is just a tiny portion of a much larger universe.

New research suggests that there are psychoanalytic approaches towards the treatment of schizophrenia which can be effective.

July 13, 2001

I had a dream in which I saw a tornado ripping up a section of Los Angeles. I was observing it from a walkway perched high in the sky, or perhaps from a nonexistent cliff overlooking the center of the city. The first thought I had when seeing this was, for some reason, please, universe, give me some life guidance! And as I thought this it occurred to me that I ought to jump off of the cliff and peer into the tornado, asking it to reveal the secret of what I ought to do (I was dimly aware I was dreaming: do not worry, I am not suicidal). As I flew towards the cyclone, it rotated around in three dimensions, but it was now frozen, unmoving, but nevertheless the clouds above and below it, the funnel, were all turning about in exquisite 3D. I marvelled to myself "it's amazing how my mind is able to rotate this complex shape in three dimensions." Then I thought, "Flying is like breathing, when we fly in our dreams the feeling is that we ought to be falling, but we are continuously held aloft. This is just the paradox of life: how we continue to stay alive, our homeostatic processes keep us going, from moment to moment, despite the inexorable gravity of death... When we fly in our dreams we imagine a situation in which our life continues, impossibly renewed by staying up in the face of the pull of disintegration." (Though I write the thought out like that, in the dream it came to me all at once, in a flash.) Then I thought, "hmm, that's an interesting thought. I think I'll write about that in my weblog." Making this the first time I've dreamt about writing something in my weblog, this, what you're reading, right now.

Sometimes when I go away or get busy and I haven't kept up with my favorite weblogs for a while, I feel so guilty about all the content that I've missed that I don't want to even begin reading them until I have time to read everything I've missed. Which makes me not want to even glance at them, which makes the backlog worse and worse. I think of this and realize I ought to just start from where I am, and just read the last entry, and stop berating myself for falling behind. So feel free to just read the latest bit of what I've written here. You can go back and read more on another day, or never.

July 12, 2001

Is it the boy who cried wolf, or is it Cassandra? When the planet is at stake, it might be worth being a tad more cautious than one otherwise might be. From the article:

...newer, more sophisticated models suggest that the Earth's climate system is "nonlinear"--in other words, small changes can have large effects on everything from ocean and land temperatures to drought and monsoon patterns, icecaps and tropical rain forests.

...For example, one projection is that melting Arctic ice could cause a flow of fresh water into the North Atlantic that would shut down the Gulf Stream this century. That warm current moderates the European climate, and turning it off would make a swath of land from London to Stockholm miserable.

...In the global warming debate, a chief argument of industry, joined by Bush administration officials and some scientists, is that the U.S. and its allies should not rush into potentially costly measures to head off possible climate change because our knowledge of the subject is limited.

Many scientists, however, say that argument is precisely backward. The possibility of sudden, dramatic climate shifts means that, although there is a risk that current models are too pessimistic, there is also a substantial risk that they are too optimistic.

July 8, 2001

I think the things that people call "divine" or "holy" can be grouped together under the heading of things that we appreciate in a particular way, a sort of mode or stance. But ultimately that mode or stance is appreciating something about reality which can only be precisely said to apply to everything altogether, without exception. So that one has to ultimately conclude that the very life that we think we have that is so profane, so problematized, so describable --- this very life has the same quality as those things we think of as sublime, ineffable, transcendent, including everything that we think of as the mundane, ordinary, effable. But of course that which we think we can describe is such a tiny fragment of the whole. The fact that we can't see directly that this is the case (by "directly" I mean just see simply, not via some complicated philosophy) is the source of what we think of as problems.

"In Heaven and on Earth, there is nothing that can be called holy."

Gary Wong - Slap D -own1994   Gary Wong
"Slap Down," 1994

student at Chouinard, '63-'67

Nob Hadeishi
"Journey Series #5," 2000

student at Chouinard,
taught at Chouinard, '66-'71
  Nob Hadeishi - Journey Series #5 - 2000

Emerson Woellfer - Psychic Automatism - 1999   Emerson Woelffer
"Psychic Automatism," 1999

taught at Chouinard, '59-'70

The Chouinard show (at the Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way, downtown Oceanside, CA, through August 26) was really something. They had current work from the artists who are still alive, as well as older work from artists from every era of Chouinard's 51-year history. It was interesting to see how the work evolved over time. It was also interesting to see how high-quality everything was; nearly every piece was very good, a rarity at a group show. Of course, because Chouinard ended in the early 70's, there were no young artists represented. Nevertheless it was quite amazing to see and hear these artists in person, their enthusiasm and energy still bursting forth. Why didn't they do a reunion/revival effort before?

Chouinard's Last Night

The Last Night of the Chouinard Art Institute, 1972

On the way back to Portland met up with Heather F. who was in the Bay Area to attend a wedding.

It's good to be back in Portland.

July 7, 2001

Went rock climbing in Joshua Tree for a couple of days, and later, went to the amazing Chouinard art exhibit. I want to write much more but I'm a bit tired and will have to sleep right now. Driving back up to Portland tomorrow and Monday. Will try to write a real update shortly, however.

July 3, 2001

The new home of Heather F.'s Texting (Groksoup has proven to be flaky lately).

The New Super Rad Bovine Inversus Weblog Blog! (it's even funnier if you've read Bovine Inversus in the past).

My father and a whole bunch of other former Chouinard faculty and students are having a big show in Oceanside, CA. It's a way of paying tribute to the great school and showing some current work being done by people who went to the school. If you're in Southern California, check it out. (Unfortunately the painting on the LA TImes web page by Mike Kanemitsu is rotated 90 degrees.)

July 1, 2001

Jared Diamond, author of the intriguing Guns, Germs, and Steel (he talks about the subject of that book in this lecture: Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?), has come out with another fascinating work, this time on the subject of human sexuality: Why is Sex Fun? From the first page:

If your dog had your brain and could speak, and if you asked it what it thought of your sex life, you might be surprised by its response. It would be something like this:
Those disgusting humans have sex any day of the month! Barbara proposes sex even when she knows perfectly well that she isn't fertile --- like just after her period. John is eager for sex all the time, without caring whether his efforts could result in a baby or not. But if you want to hear something really gross --- Barbara and John kept on having sex while she was pregnant! That's as bad as all the times when John's parents come for a visit, and I can hear them too having sex, although John's mother went through this thing they call menopause years ago. Now she can't have babies anymore, but she still wants sex, and John's father obliges her. What a waste of effort! Here's the weirdest thing of all: Barbara and John, and John's parents, close the bedroom door and have sex in private, instead of doing it in front of their friends like any self-respecting dog!

From another book I'm reading, The Compass of Zen, by the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn:

Everyone believes that time and space exist. Ha ha ha ha! That's very funny!
But seriously ... apropos of nothing in particular: People tend to think that going to Harvard is a really high-class, luxury sort of affair. All pomp and circumstance, chandeliers and Hahvahd accents. Nothing could be further from the truth: while it's a very good school and the students are among the best anywhere, and I'm glad I went, there were many very ordinary aspects to the daily routine of attending the school. For example, while I was there in the mid-80's it was at least once or twice a year that undergrads had to get their stomachs pumped at UHS (University Health Services) because of food poisoning from food prepared by the Central Kitchen. The grass which always looked reasonably green by the commencement ceremonies was typically brown mud for most of the spring, which the administration would seed and cordon off just before graduation to prompt false memories in returning alumni of how wonderful the lawns were in the Quad. I actually take some pleasure in all of these funky details of life at Harvard. But nothing tops this in my memory:

When I was a freshman, we used to eat at what was called the Freshman Union (it is no longer used for this purpose, as I understand it). Most of us would eat in the main dining hall, but there was this little room, I think it was called the private dining room, off to the side. It wasn't really private since anyone could go in there and eat if they wanted to, but hardly anyone ever did. The room was slightly more upscale in design than the main hall; maybe it was originally intended for VIPs; there were little small chandelier things hanging from the ceiling, for example. But these things were all really dusty, and the whole room had this air of dilapidation and general wear and tear.

One day during my freshman year I decided to test to see how bad things could really get there. I stood up on a table and placed a tiny breadcrust up in one of the little chandeliers, where it would be easily visible if you got up there to clean it. I then went about my life ... until the last day of school, my senior year, when I decided to go back to the old Freshman Union and visit the private dining room. I got up on the table and looked in the chandelier... and you can guess what I saw. Interestingly, it was perfectly preserved, it hadn't been eaten up by mold or anything, for some reason. It was just a desiccated old bread crust, sitting there, covered by a layer of dust...

Naturally, I left it...