synthetic zero


July 31, 2003

Some random ideas for short films I have had.

A film about someone running, running, running, running, running, frantically, it never stops, it just keeps going, impossibly, at top speed. Actually it is shot on multiple days so it seems as though the runner has infinite energy.

Several people have an intense conversation. Then the scene is repeated, but with the actors swapping roles. Man becomes woman, etc. The actual words remain the same.

A sea of fingers, waving and repeated digitally so they look from a distance like a field of grass.

An interactive film in which what happens is subtly changed by repeated interaction with the viewers. Over days, weeks, and months the film very slowly changes --- timing, movement of elements, rhythm.

July 30, 2003

Each time I feel like I'm starting to get bogged down, I find it helpful to remember that I can approach this instant as though it were the absolute beginning; starting over from scratch. I don't have to satisfy the requirements of what seems to be the momentum of the past.

July 25, 2003

We're having a little party to celebrate the (mostly) complete construction of our loft, on Saturday, August 2, 2003, at 8pm. If you'd like to come please email me.

I'm no fan of the Cato Institute's views on environmental protection, economics (I tend to agree with some of their ideas but certainly not their excessive trust in the efficiency of unregulated free markets), judicial nominations, and the like --- but I have to admit their views on Iraq make a whole lot of sense. Some choice quotes from their position papers on the war:

Saddam's overthrow would trigger a democratic transformation in the Middle East, producing new regimes that would be far friendlier to both Israel and the United States.

That is a fantasy, not a realistic goal. It is highly improbable that overthrowing Saddam's regime and setting up a democratic successor in Iraq would lead to a surge of democracy in the region. Indeed, it probably wouldn't even lead to a stable, united, democratic Iraq over the long term. A U.S. occupation force would be needed for many years just to keep a client regime in power.

The harsh reality is that the Middle East has no history of democratic rule, democratic institutions or serious democratic movements. To expect stable democracies to emerge from such an environment is naive.

...there is no history of Iraq giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Saddam has had more than a decade to arm Palestinian suicide terrorists with chemical and biological weapons to use against Israel, a country hated as much as the United States. Yet he has not done so. On the contrary, Saddam trusts only a few loyal officers with such weapons. There just isn't a mountain of evidence supporting the administration's position. Indeed, it's more like a molehill. According to Powell, alleged linkages to al Qaeda involve connecting Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi to the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group operating in northeastern Iraq. But this is Kurdish-controlled territory protected by U.S.-led enforcement of the no-fly zone, and collaboration between Ansar al-Islam and the Iraqi regime is not proven. Furthermore, no case has been made that Iraq supported al Qaeda in the planning, financing, or operation of the 9/11 attacks.
Charles Peña, Different Messenger, But Same Message: War, February 14, 2003
....the major cost of a war with Iraq is that it would undermine the continuing and more threatening war against terrorism. Critical intelligence resources would be diverted to the conduct of the war and away from the war against terrorism. Other governments, whose support is not critical to a war in Iraq, may reduce their cooperation in the sharing of intelligence on terrorists and their willingness to arrest and possibly extradite terrorists. Furthermore, a war with Iraq threatens to enflame the militant Muslims around the world and unify them against the United States. Those of us who live and work in the District of Columbia (and in New York City) would be more threatened by terrorism as a consequence of a U.S. war with Iraq.

One other cost of a war with Iraq is that it would be strongly contrary to the centuries-old principle of international law against preventive wars, the principle by which Americans have always distinguished the bad guys from the good guys. A U.S. violation of this principle may invite a more general breakdown of this important principle.

William A. Niskansen, One Last Time: The Case Against a War With Iraq, February 25, 2003
Here's what a supporter of the war told me about the need for a lengthy U.S. occupation of Iraq: "If we don't stay, it will only be worse than before." The irony of his statement was completely lost on him. Of course, Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. His regime was also at least pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction (although the search for any WMD currently is coming up empty). But Iraq was never a direct and imminent threat to the United States. Nor was Saddam in bed with al-Qaeda, as was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

....the cruel irony is that the longer the United States stays, however well intentioned and noble the motive, the more Iraqis will come to resent a foreign occupier. The guerrilla-style tactics being used to pick off U.S. and British troops may only be the tip of the iceberg. The lesson should be clear: The United States must leave Iraq at the earliest possible opportunity.

Charles Peña, Leave Iraq as Soon as Possible, June 25, 2003


July 20, 2003

Recently I had this idea that I might cut my hair short --- it's so hot here in the summer, and I don't know, I thought perhaps I wanted to have a change of look. Then, without apparent prompting, multiple strangers mentioned how much they loved my hair; a couple of women on the street, at random, and a couple other people I met over the last week. So the hair is staying put, at least for the time being.

July 18, 2003

The more that comes out about this Iraq fiasco the more I feel like banging my head against the wall in frustration --- arrgh! This Salon article details many of the terrible mistakes and assumptions we made in the planning for this war. One in particular stands out:

Many say the neocons have been blinkered by an essential inability to grasp others' opposition to their designs. "One of the things that seems to be a thread that runs throughout all of their thinking is a sort of big-stick view of the world, that the world tends to jump on the bandwagon and follow whoever the big dog is, that you can cow people and intimidate them and get lots of respect, that power generates its own respect," says Walt.

In this case, though, America's assertion of power has generated primarily resentment and Schadenfreude.

Precisely the mistake that Jack Snyder pointed out in his work on the myths of empire which I quoted last March:
Another myth of empire is that states tend to jump on the bandwagon with threatening or forceful powers. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union thought that forceful action in Berlin, Cuba, and the developing world would demonstrate its political and military strength, encourage so-called progressive forces to ally actively with the Soviets, and thereby shift the balance of forces still further in the favor of the Communist bloc. The Soviets called this the "correlation of forces" theory. In fact, the balance of power effect far outweighed and erased the bandwagon effect.

....Now, the current Bush Administration hopes that bandwagon dynamics can be made to work in its own favor. Despite the difficulties that the United States had in lining up support for an invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration nonetheless asserts that its strategy of preventive war will lead others to jump on the U.S. bandwagon. Rumsfeld has said that "if our leaders do the right thing, others will follow and support our just cause-just as they have in the global war against terror."

These are such elementary mistakes, it just boggles the mind. I've always felt the initial military victory would be relatively easy --- it was the postwar consequences that would be grave. It seemed so obvious to me --- yet of course, I thought, perhaps I might be wrong. One could even hope to be wrong, since the alternative scenario of long-term disaster really is quite depressing to contemplate. So far, unfortunately, I have been right. And it seems there were many other people in the government and intelligence agencies who have been saying precisely the same thing for months now --- completely unheeded by the fools in the Defense Department and the Bush Adminstration.

July 17, 2003

Well. Well, well, well. The thing about trying to control the flow of events by controlling information, by replacing careful, reasoned, balanced analysis with exaggeration and deception is that there does happen to be something that one could refer to as reality, which has a way of eventually coming back around and biting you: very, very hard. During the run-up to this war I kept thinking about the old saw, "you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time," and we do seem to be running into this truth, big-time, now. The media are finally picking up on the fact that these lies, deceptions, distortions, and misrepresentations have real consequences in the real world, the real world that you and I actually live in, and those consequences matter. It's not just about 16 words in a speech --- it's about the whole series of failures; a failure to predict the size, strength, and timing of the force needed for this war (30 to 90 day occupation?), a failure to predict the guerrila insurgency (based on the assumption that Hussein had no support among the Iraqi people), a failure to prepare for reconstruction, a failure to accurately gauge the cost of this war, financially and politically ... self-delusions as well as deceptions of the nation. I still believe that it's already too late --- we will suffer consequences from this war no matter what happens, even if Bush loses the next election --- but we at least have some chance, perhaps, to make those consequences slightly less bad than they might otherwise be. Maybe.

July 15, 2003

About silence.











July 14, 2003

Desire is quite peculiar. There are clearly desires that come up and you know, somehow, that you should resist them, or at the very least not go too far with them ... yet they nonetheless persist and they might be quite strong. But the question arises, if these desires are to be avoided, why do they come forward so strongly? That is, there must be an evolutionary or other reason for these desires, yet they nevertheless can be quite problematic. Sometimes I am hard pressed to find any good reason for a particular desire, yet there it is, exceptionally strong, and I wonder, what is this for? Why is it there? Am I really right to react against it? But in some cases when you see these things more deeply, they turn into something else --- something that neither needs to be resisted nor indulged, a part of something much bigger, and the desire is resolved. That isn't, however, always easy to see.

July 11, 2003

Robert sends me this article about a possible mass extinction that may be caused by global warming. The hypothesis is that the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period was not caused by a meteorite impact, but rather by global warming caused by an unusual series of volcanic eruptions, unlocking polar methane hydrate which causes further runaway warming. Rather sobering stuff.

On a MUCH lighter and funnier note, Jimmy sends me this link to a fantastic Japanese video. Well worth viewing/downloading.

My housemate Amy (who is an artist) saw Miranda July in a little blurb in Jane magazine. She quipped, "now that I've seen her in Jane magazine I believe she's for real."

Speaking of real, k--mroczek.com is real. Or is he? He keeps changing, so... it's sometimes hard to tell.

What I despise most about spam is not the fact that I have to read it --- it mostly goes into my trash can, caught by one of my thousand-odd filters --- but the fact that I might have unwittingly deleted a non-spam email from a stranger. This really, really galls me.

July 10, 2003

This whole Niger uranium story is really blowing up now. The interesting thing about it is that even Republicans in Congress are taking this very seriously:

I just spoke with Senator Grassley's and Representative Nussle's offices.

Their response was startling.

Grassley's office said they consider the uranium incident to be very serious - as well they should.

But it was Nussle's staff reply that floored me. I politely pointed out that Nussle had sent a letter to his costituents mentioning the African uranium.

I asked her what the Congressman's concerns are that he was lied to and in turn gave his constituents false information. I was told that they consider this a "very grave" matter.

I then replied that they should. I then reminded her that 4 years ago Rep Nussle voted to impeach a president who lied about a consensual sex act and now we have a president who lied about the Iraqi nuclear program and 200 Americans are now dead.

Nussle's aide said this is far more serious than what had happened with Clinton.

Nussle's aide just kept writing this down, asking me to repeat the information in several places. I've called many times before to Nussle, Leach, Grassley and Harkin and have never had a response like this.

Congress is worried about this. Please call them today and ask for hearings.

In some ways I'm glad this is getting coverage though in other ways I feel it is missing the larger point, which is that the whole strategy of attacking and occupying Iraq was mistaken for a wide variety of reasons that go far beyond the issue of weapons of mass destruction. For example, one might argue that it might have been justified simply because Hussein was a terrible tyrant --- but in my view, the way we conducted this war was almost nightmarishly inept even if this was your justification. The way we went about it was bound to embolden our own enemies and make the occupation exceptionally unpleasant for both us and the Iraqis. But I've argued those points many times in the past, so I won't repeat them all here.

I will mention, however, that one of my main reasons for thinking this occupation will not go well is that Iraq is not a country like Germany and Japan were at the time of World War II. One can see that Iraqis, now that the boot of totalitarianism has been lifted from them, are not spontaneously self-organizing peacefully. And I doubt that this will occur in any reasonable time frame, without significant draconian measures undertaken by us (and even in that case I doubt we will succeed at stamping out all violence against us or against Iraqis who cooperate with us). We have really, really gotten ourselves into a disastrous no-win situation. We cannot stay and we cannot leave --- what can we do?

On a different note. I was thinking a little bit more about differences between New York and Los Angeles culture. Los Angeles has a very distinctive atmosphere --- one of its chief qualities is a sense of relaxed egalitarianism. Even movie stars seem to go around most of the time wearing fairly ordinary casual clothing, for example. This contrasts with New York where everyone seems to be trying to imitate the way they think celebrities live, yet in the city where most celebrities actually live, they live quite differently.

On the plane back from Los Angeles I picked up a copy of the American Airlines magazine, mostly because it has an interview of Susan's cousin Norbert Wu (who does a lot of underwater photography). But one of the funny things that caught my notice was the interview of, yes, the cast of the Charlie's Angels movie. At one point they asked Drew Barrymore where you could get a good meal for $25, and she mentioned two places, including one where two people could eat for $25. Then they asked Cameron Diaz where you could get a good meal for a couple of hundred bucks, and she said "Forget that. I'd say spend a couple of bucks and hit a taco truck on Santa Monica Boulevard any Friday night."

I realized that's why food in the South Bronx seems to be better than most average places in Manhattan --- in Manhattan many of the good restaurants tend to also be quite expensive, and it's harder to find reasonably-priced good food. In the South Bronx, however, if you're a good cook you don't necessarily charge a huge amount. It's more the West Coast attitude, where you can get fantastic food for $25, $12, even $2 in some places. I suppose that might be why in many ways I feel more at home here in the South Bronx than I do in Manhattan, even if I am culturally more similar to people in Manhattan in most ways.

July 6, 2003

Jenny sent me this: MIT Launches Watch on US Government.

I was thinking this morning about the problem with goals as they are typically framed. Let's say the goal is "make more money" or "have a good career" or "get <so and so> to fall in love with me"... the problem isn't so much the goal itself as the idea that positing the goal does anything. We have an illusion of control; the notion that simply by setting up a goal we've done most of the work involved in achieving something. We might think "if I tell myself I want a piece of bread, I just get up and get it, so if it works there..." --- it's an overgeneralization.

In fact, what is far more useful is examining how we function, how well we operate, in what way we operate. Because in the moment, all you can do is whatever is the most optimal right now. You can't change the past or achieve some goal in the future --- you can only operate as effectively, as mindfully, with as much awareness as you can, right here and now. It's strange how paying attention to how we operate as opposed to what our goals are seems like a waste of time --- but skip that and you could waste your whole life busily setting goals.

Advice from Harvard Admissions to applicants: Chill out:

It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the "prizes," stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties---physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others---sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else's expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.

....many would benefit from a pause in their demanding lives. Let us hope that more of them will take some sort of time-out before burn-out becomes the hallmark of their generation.

Take some time to do things without structure, or you might find death arriving without you noticing your life. Often I find a radical departure from the expected is exactly what I need; but I can never find that unless I take some time to allow the exploration of that which is beyond my intention.

July 3, 2003

So far, since the war "ended":

Our troops have come under increasing fire, and we've had to crack down more and more severely in response.

No "weapons of mass destruction" have been found (to even my surprise). Though this certainly doesn't prove Saddam didn't have any, it does show that it is extremely unlikely he had any ready to deploy at a moment's notice (as the "coalition" claimed just prior to the war). Little bits of evidence that they were deceiving us (something that was clear before the war) --- such as the buried uranium enrichment centrifuge equipment --- also show that although they may have harbored dim hopes of someday restarting these programs, in the 12 years since the end of the first Gulf War, they had done nothing to reconstitute their nuclear program, even after the inspectors left four years ago. Yet more evidence that inspections and international pressure likely would have been perfectly adequate to prevent Iraq from restarting their programs.

We've cancelled elections in Najaf, the first elections that had been scheduled outside of Kurdish territory, further tarnishing our image. We've shut down newspapers.

Images of cheering crowds tearing down statues (note: that widely-publicized shot was actually a staged event, something I knew from a report from a friend of a friend in Baghdad at the time) have been replaced by reports of Iraqis setting Humvees on fire (from the New York Times today): "Iraqis then set the damaged Humvee ablaze, hurling stones and, in a particularly Arab insult, threw shoes at the vehicle."

Even I have been surprised at how many of my pre-war predictions about how this is going to go have come true, with a few exceptions: there were even fewer WMD found than I expected (i.e., none), and the collapsing of our government's expectations and "plans" has proceeded even more rapidly than I expected. (To call our utter lack of preparation "plans," of course, is to insult the whole notion of planning --- we spent far too little time preparing for the chaos that is now engulfing that country; we gave short shrift to reconstruction and security matters (note: recently the CSIS site went down --- temporarily? --- but it is still here and here in the Google cache). General Shinseki, prescient in his prediction that it would take several hundred thousand troops to truly pacify the country, is retiring and being replaced by a hand-picked Rumsfeldista --- compounding our planning failures by appointing more people with a poor sense of political and strategic military reality.) It's nearly breathtaking how badly this is going, and how utterly obvious it all was beforehand. As Susan remarked the other day, in the case of this war, unlike many others, the arguments against it were so obvious that it is difficult to even get excited about them. I have to admit my sense of outrage is tempered by the fact that we were so stupid to get involved in this war (particularly in the way we did) that one looks at the unfolding events more as a kind of slow-motion car wreck in progress; just another example of the inexorable progression of the laws of nature. I just look at this and the consequences of our actions long into what remains of our country's future as though I were watching a nature program, like one of those old Mutual of Omaha specials.

July 1, 2003

The following unintentionally bizarre juxtaposition appeared on the LA Times front web page this morning (they've now fixed it, alas). Until you read the tiny caption, at first glance it appeared Buddy Hackett will be more sorely missed than one might have at first imagined.

Iraqis carry the coffin of a cleric killed in an overnight blast in Fallujah. (Reuters)

Buddy Hackett, 78, Dies

The comedic actor died at his home in Malibu.