synthetic zero


May 31, 2002

Today as I was pulling into the gas station I wanted to stop at the closer pump, instead of pulling through, as I am supposed to, to the far pump. I had no idea why I wanted to do this. I usually follow these feelings, since I have had in the past a fair amount of experience where whenever I ignore these feelings bad things happen. But this time I couldn't think of any reason to go with what seemed a random whim, so I slowly rolled the car towards the forward pump --- despite my misgivings.

The attendant walked up (in Oregon there is a law against self-service) and I rolled down my window. "Fill it?" he asked. "Yes," I said, handing him my credit card. "Regular, please." He looked at me and said, "oh, you'll have to back up to the other pump. Regular is broken on this pump right now."

It's strange, because I have had a large number of really, really amazing, mind-bendingly bizarre sequences of events and "coincidences" (far more dramatic than this one) which have always led me to think that there is something very odd going on in the universe --- that things like this can and do happen, and they're not coincidences. But --- for some reason, I've always held at the back of my mind the dim possibility --- maybe they ARE coincidences. But you know, that little incident at the gas station has gotten me to thinking about the serious implications of this. If this stuff is really happening, and at this point I think there is enough evidence to conclude that it really is quite likely --- and not only do they happen once in a while, but they're happening all the time, to everybody, constantly, I think (though we're often unaware of it consciously) --- then it implies a lot. It implies that we need a radically new physics to even begin to explain these things, because ordinary physics simply doesn't allow for this (except for nonlinear quantum theories which haven't really been worked out very far). It implies, also, that when we think we've hidden something of ourselves from the world, what we think we have hidden could still have effects that ripple out into the universe. That's a sobering thought.

May 29, 2002

I like basketball. Most of my friends don't like sports very much, and I generally dislike baseball and football, but basketball --- to me this is a beautiful game. It requires both individual excellence and a kind of unconscious awareness of the whole. With respect to Robert Horry's amazing last-minute three-pointer that gave the Lakers their Game 4 win a couple of days ago, one sports writer wrote:

Sports psychologists charge hundreds of dollars per hour to help athletes learn to take conscious thought out of the physical routines of games.

Horry, it seems, was born with a mind that goes blank in the tightest of spots.

Someone asked Horry what went through his mind when he the ball landed in his hands Sunday afternoon.

"Nothing," he said. "Nothing. Nothing.

"You don't think. You just go out there and just play. You say, "Hey, give me the ball and I'm going to put it in."

"Most guys, when they shoot the ball they think too much."


May 27, 2002

A slew of strange experiments and observations have begun to accumulate which radically question our ordinary physical theories (not that our ordinary theories are all that ordinary --- but this stuff implies that we haven't even begun to scratch the surface yet). For example, consider this Wired article which contains the following description of an exceptionally simple experiment with amazingly bizarre implications:

Dick Bierman of the University of Amsterdam presented a report that shook a few foundations.

He repeated and amplified earlier work that studies emotional responses to shocking or erotic imagery, seconds before the subject sees the randomly timed stimulus.

Bierman's first study, published in 2000 in the book Toward A Science of Consciousness III, found his subjects' skin conductance change one or more seconds before the disturbing or sexually explicit images appeared. Yet when mundane images randomly mixed in with the shocking ones were shown, subjects' skin "presponded" differently.

Bierman's work may have revealed a crude ability to sense the future, much like the "precogs" in the forthcoming Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report, even if this skill only spans a few heartbeats.

On Tuesday he presented new magnetic resonance imagery from a similar experiment that confirms this result. More strikingly, he also found the same "pre-sentiment" effect when he re-examined two related studies performed by other independent research teams.

Although neither team set out to study this temporal anomaly, Bierman discovered that an anomaly was indeed there.

Presenting these studies last month at a conference on consciousness in Tucson, Arizona, Bierman said scientists cannot ignore such results, simply because they run afoul of current models of the mind.

"I'm willing to explore any theoretical framework," he said. "I'm completely driven by the data."

J I M W I C h notes that Kevin Kelly wrote a book called Out of Control in which Kelly points out that bird-to-bird reaction time is too slow to explain the turning responses in flying flocks of birds.

On a different subject. Richard suggests checking out Nick Bostrom's site, which covers the argument I laid out in my May 22 entry (which is apparently called the Carter-Leslie argument) as well as many other arguments, such as the simulation argument, which suggests that we must be living in a simulation of reality, since copies are much more numerous than the original. I'm not so sure I buy the simulation argument --- since, due to computational irreducibility, the Universe is already in some sense simulating itself as quickly as it can. That is: one cannot in general predict the outcome of a computation any faster than running the algorithm. Thus, there wouldn't be much point in simulating the universe; that would be slower than just letting the universe evolve.

David refers me to the following remarkable discoveries: a new amino acid has been discovered, and vast amounts of water have been found on Mars.

May 24, 2002

It's not that we're these things that do stuff. We are fires that burn, and each moment we're tracing out the trajectory of our bodies extended through spacetime; the network of all the relationships of our life. By "relationships" I mean --- each moment light hits our eyes, the billions of instants of sensations and feelings, each connection between ourselves and the rest of the world. In other words, a day passes and we're a day older, we're not the same as we were before.

Yesterday my friend Susanna and her boy Jeff arrived and Sue and I went around Portland with them. It was a glorious day, very fun. At one point we walked a couple of miles across the park, past the Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Winter Garden and the Arboretum, and finally to the Zoo where we took the Max (light rail). I have never actually taken the Max going west before, and I was surprised to realize that the station was far underground. They have this high-speed elevator that whooshes you down a couple of hundred feet to the train tunnel below. It felt like we were in a real, big city, a subway station and everything. There was an exhibit, so to speak, engraved into the walls of the station, depicting various moments in the history of mankind, and one item was the digits of pi, or so it appeared, arranged in a square. "3.141592653582..." Jeff noticed it first --- all the digits after "5358..." were wrong. Yes, both he and I were nerdy enough to have memorized enough of the digits of pi to know that the artist had decided to put in a bunch of random digits after the first 12. (For what it's worth, these are the digits of pi that I memorized in eighth grade: "3.14159 26535 89793 23846 26433 83279 50288".) It's hard to understand the mindset of the artist who would just put up a bunch of random digits after the first 12. Clearly not a nerd, but one would imagine that engraving these digits into the wall of the subway station, even a non-technical artist would have enough respect for the symbolism of the mathematics to actually use the real digits of pi.

May 22, 2002

One of the curious facts about our situation in the universe is that we appear to be aware and have a civilization. From this one cannot really deduce that civilization or life is either common or uncommon in the cosmos; if we found life on Mars, that would greatly increase the probability of life elsewhere, and certainly if we found evidence of life in another solar system near ours, we'd have to conclude it is very common indeed. However, reasoning from an example of one is basically impossible. But there is the Copernican principle to consider --- the principle that we are not in a unique position in the universe. This allowed Copernicus to realize that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and later we concluded the Sun was not unique, either.

But what about the Copernican principle as applied to our situation in time? Suppose human civilization were to continue forward for millions of years, resulting in the development of trillions of human beings and our descendants into the distant future, eventually building habitats in space, etc.? If this were the case, doesn't it seem odd that of all the trillions of human beings who are going to live, we happen to be one of those living at the very dawn of civilization itself? Why is it that we're sitting here, a mere several thousand years into the history of civilized mankind, if we're going to persist for millions more?

I'm not sure exactly how to reason about this. Perhaps one cannot apply this principle here. After all, unlikely though it might be for us to be in this privileged position, somebody had to live at the dawn of civilization. On the other hand, perhaps civilizations tend to destroy themselves quickly after they begin. Or perhaps we will mutate into some other sort of beings very soon, like information entities living in crystalline quantum computing networks, or something like that.

I have to say that I think Kafka's The Trial is one of my few most favorite books --- if not my absolute favorite. But I have never seen Orson Welles' adaptation of the book --- partly because I don't think Welles himself understood the novel, at all. At least not consciously. Welles said this about his own film:

I couldn't put my name to a work that implies man's ultimate surrender. Being on the side of man, I had to show him in his final hour undefeated. . . I do not share Kafka's point of view in The Trial. I believe that he is a good writer, but Kafka is not the extraordinary genius that people today see in him. He [Joseph K.] is a little bureaucrat. I consider him guilty . . . He belongs to a guilty society; he collaborates with it. What made it possible for me to make the picture is that I've had recurring nightmares of guilt all my life: I'm in prison and I don't know why—going to be tried and I don't know why. It's very personal for me. A very personal experience, and it's not at all true that I'm off in some foreign world that has no application to myself; it's the most autobiographical movie that I've ever made, the only one that's really close to me. And just because it doesn't speak in a Middle West accent doesn't mean a damn thing. It's much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture I've ever made.
Welles makes the same mistake most people do, which is to read the novel as a story about a bureaucrat living in a guilty society --- but in fact Kafka was talking about something much greater, a situation which faces everyone living as a human being. But Welles clearly does understand something of Kafka, though not entirely consciously --- I just watched the first part of his film on DVD last night, and I was surprised and impressed. But Welles is wrong about him --- Kafka was indeed a genius, and Welles didn't understand that Kafka wasn't saying, at all, that man should surrender to guilt. In fact, the book is about the endless possibility of salvation, a possibility which we fail to grasp only because we are too stubborn. I am fascinated with this idea of guilt --- though I myself am not wracked by a sense of guilt as Kafka and apparently Welles himself was, I feel that I once (it feels like hundreds of years ago), due to my own ignorance, participated in some terrible crimes to which I am dedicated to making amends now, even though I can never truly make up for them. Even if it takes an infinite amount of time, however, I will never give up. So I am fascinated by this story as well, despite my cheery disposition (see below) --- and I am fascinated by people who carry this burden much more close to their heart than I do. For example, I told Susan the other day that she is halfway between Kafka and Marilyn Monroe. That isn't an oxymoron by any means.

May 20, 2002

Yes, I write fairly regularly. This may have something to do with the fact that I am more or less always happy, which isn't something I think of as an achievement of any sort, since it seems to have been something I can more correctly attribute to my parents --- either through a combination of genetics or environment or both, presumably. I am fascinated by people who have more exciting emotional lives, though they tell me that it is nothing worth envying --- but to me, the placidity of my inner life reminds me something of the weather in my native Los Angeles --- always the same, sunny, with a few exciting thunderstorms, perhaps, now and then, but basically uniform throughout the year. Not too hot, not too cold. In other words, boring, even though lots of people seem to love that. I want a little more in the way of seasons. My own mood ranges from --- at its most bleak --- mildly bored to blissfully ecstatic. Unless I happen to be in great physical pain, but even then I am not unhappy, just in pain. Plus there is a way out: or rather, a way in, to be totally in the moment of the pain, and not spread it out throughout all time and space (in particular into the imagined future). All this I get to a large degree from my father, who is also quite even-keeled.

It's not that I think my equanimity actually helps me write --- if anything, it deters me from writing: since I am mostly satisfied all the time, what is going to motivate me to do anything at all, least of all attempt to communicate? Well, that's an exaggeration --- I do want to connect to others, but my drive to create is tempered to some extent by my monotonous sense of constant satisfaction. The plus side of this is that since I have managed to figure out ways to do some things, to write a little, etc., because my mood is reasonably stable, I continue to do this consistently. Don't underestimate the value of disaster --- the disasters in my own life are practically the only thing that keeps me awake and growing. I must go way out of my way to pay attention to small signs of difficulty or mistakes I am making. I treasure all of the failures and minor catastrophes in my short life so far.

Lemonyellow stopped writing a while ago. I used to reload her page frequently, because I enjoyed reading her site so much. So I know what that is like, sitting there, reload, reload, when is s/he going to update? Of course, the fact that she stopped writing is one big reason why I am going to New York in the fall, for at least a fair while. I need to get updates from her in person. It was a good ploy to get me to come to New York.

May 18 (b), 2002

The WELL asked me to interview David Mason, author of Spirit of the Mountains, a book on Korean shamanism and mountain worship.

What I feel when thinking about jealousy isn't rage or a sense of betrayal or whatever, it is a sense of "ickiness." I suppose I visualize her with this other guy, and then I think about me with her, and there is this transitive thing that makes it kind of icky. I suppose this particular icky feeling isn't as much of a problem for gay men, but it is a peculiar feature of being a fairly un-bi heterosexual man, I suppose. But watching movies or television shows that depict jealous rages it doesn't seem to me they are driven primarily by the ick factor, which is why I must conclude that I don't really know what jealousy per se feels like, at least not very clearly.

Another side effect of "ick" is that my level of attraction to a woman varies directly with the men she's sleeping with. I.e., if I happen to know that a certain woman is currently sleeping with a guy I find more icky than average, then no matter how attractive that woman might be by herself, I can't help but imagine the guy or guys she's sleeping with. I guess I immediately perceive people in terms of their network of relationships: I find it difficult to perceive people just by themselves, as disconnected individuals. Like that old adage about STDs; you're not just sleeping with one person, you're sleeping with everyone they ever slept with --- I really feel that way sometimes.

May 18, 2002

Just to clarify my post about jealousy: I posted that after watching a couple of movies where the characters fly into rages when finding out their girlfriend committed a one-time infidelity. It's not so much that I think there is necessarily something wrong with the emotion of jealousy --- it's just that I for some reason don't feel it myself, at least not very much. I could understand getting upset if my girlfriend lied to me, or had unprotected sex with someone she didn't know was clean, or wanted to leave me, or something. If we had kids or something of course that would be something else --- I wouldn't want to break up the family or have some strange man suddenly get overly involved in the family. But again, this is not so much a matter of whether I think jealousy is good or bad, it's just that I don't really feel it, myself. Watching these films and seeing these guys fly into rages, I just couldn't understand their feeling, at all. It just doesn't resonate with me. I have compassion for the jealousy of others (I am not writing this to say I don't feel for the pain of others, especially that of jealous women) --- just that for whatever reason I myself don't feel it.

Saw Star Wars. Okay, it wasn't quite as painful as Episode I, though I have to say the "romance" dialogue was about the worst I have ever heard. Is there any girl who would fall for a guy who talked like that? I don't think so. All these nerds are going to watch this film and take their cue from Lucas' absurd dialogue, and continue to perpetuate their nerdiness forever. And I am a fan of science fiction.

May 16, 2002

Suppose we made a room of billions of petri dishes, each one of them containing one live neuron. Now, let's say I took a snapshot of my brain, somehow, and in some way determined the state of every one of my neurons at time t. Then I electrochemically stimulated each one of the neurons in these dishes to be in precisely the same state that the neurons in my brain were in at time t. Would the room full of disconnected neurons in petri dishes then, for a split second, be "in the same mental state" as my brain at time t?

The answer must be no. I think this is a good enough argument to establish that a mental state is not the same thing as a physical state. However... this is not to say that mental states depend on anything other than physical states. Rather, I believe that what we call mental states require feedback loops a la Gregory Bateson, and involve the propagation of differences along these causal loops. In other words, mental states require a process. Thus our "minds" are not localized to any specific point in space and time --- they are necessarily "smeared out" to some extent. One cannot, therefore, take a snapshot of a physical system (even if one could do this --- an impossibility even in principle if one wants to also deal with quantum effects) and call that a "mental state". Physical states only relate to mental states in context.

If everything works out as planned, I might be living in New York at least for a short time starting in August or something. I've been trying to figure out ways to live in a tiny apartment. Going to put the big 27" Sony TV in storage and buy a flat screen monitor and TV tuner/S-Video scan converter for the DVD player and VCR (as well as for the video editing computer.) This one looks like a pretty good one for this purpose, since it is 19" (the same viewing size as a 20" TV or monitor), less than $1000, and it has a very fast 25ms response time (so it won't have that ghosting look when playing movies). Basically combining the TV and the stereo and the computer into one thing. Instead of the big DCM speakers, going to use the Cambridge Soundworks FPS2000 surround system. Storing the big desks and going to get some thin tables and use laptops and the flat screen for the server.

I think that maybe there is a jealousy gene or something, which I lack. I don't feel it --- when I think of something happening, like what if someone I loved slept with someone else, I guess only the following throughts cross my mind: 1) did they use protection? 2) are they going to leave me for the other person? 3) how much time are they now going to spend with this other person? 4) Is there a possibility of pregnancy involved? 5) Am I now going to have to spend time with this person, and if so, do I like him? ... If my love isn't going to leave me and it's just a matter of sex once in a while and the other person is someone I like and I am not going to have to spend that much time with him and so forth, well... I am just not going to really care. A one-night stand (as long as it was safe and clean) would mean next to nothing to me. But for some people this really makes them really mad. Why is this? Am I somehow jealousy tone deaf? I mean, I can feel intense passion and intense sadness at the thought of losing someone I love, and I have suffered because of love, but, still, jealousy per se --- that doesn't happen to me, except perhaps to the very faintest degree.

May 13, 2002

Some photos I took. Gallery door in Chelsea (actually that metal door is not the public door. The public door is off to the right, where the sunlight is coming in.)

Blurry arch in the financial district

Subway Column


May 10, 2002

Caroline is amused by Luke Helder's manifesto.

On Wednesday I had the deep pleasure of spending some time with Natalie Schulhofer. Among many things we talked about: a book she really finds interesting, Notable American Women, by Ben Marcus. She is irritated by the fact that most of the book reviews don't really deal with the issues in the book that she finds most interesting... the questions and problems raised by a group of women in the book who call themselves Silentists, who aim to become as completely still as possible --- for example, ultimately to forgo speech, to resist feeling emotions, and so forth. She told me that Marcus goes into great depth discussing this group of women from the point of view of one of the male children, who is raised to be a breeder for the group. Certain difficulties arise. Stillness and movement: how to reconcile them? An exceptionally fundamental question.

Kent Lins of Giantkicks sends me this link to a series of articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (via his May 7 entry, via Jamie.com).

Kenneth and I went to an incredibly Italian family-style restaurant last night in Little Italy. I would post a picture of the penis-shaped lightbulb-decorated fixture they had on the ceiling, which was connected to a string, which, when they pulled it, would cause the light bulbs to light up and everyone in the restaurant to applaud and yell. I would, except I think I left my digital camera cable at Emily's.

Kenneth says check out Kitty-Yo, a record label that has all of its albums available on the Internet for immediate and free listening. Listen and buy.

May 7, 2002

Went to see an impressive performance by Heather Woodbury on Sunday. She is a remarkable writer and an even more amazing performer --- perfectly hitting so many different nuances of her complex and various characters, with many varied accents and personalities. Afterward she and Heather Fenby and Forrest and I had a little picnic in the park, with some remarkably interesting, wide-ranging conversation. I like the way Heather W. thinks. Later I met S. for dinner and some late night train riding and more great conversation. So far I've had a lot of great conversations while I have been here.

May 4, 2002

Had lunch with Heather Anne and a beautiful walk through the city. Arrived twenty minutes early so we decided to duck into a Starbucks and sit around in there for a while. They are everywhere. Later on went to see an opening of Charles Gatewood's show of fetish photography, because S. knows Charles. S. doesn't like his recent work, she thinks it is boring. I was neither impressed nor bored. We ducked out early and had a late dinner, which I only finished today for lunch while slaving over a hot computer. No matter where I am, I can work. I brought my router with me so I am able to share Emily's cable modem here. Very useful.

I've been feeling waves of happiness and ecstasy, but they are mild waves. Things feel as though they are almost certain to go well no matter what happens.

May 2, 2002

There's a difference between knowing you don't (or can't) know something, and knowing that thing. In other words, there are limits to what we know, yet this doesn't mean we don't know anything about what we don't know: it is possible to know that we don't know it, for example. I will and can never know the state of every cell in my body. I can never know what it is like to be an earthworm.

In other words we can know for certain that our knowledge is incomplete. We know, for example, that linear quantum mechanics and general relativity are both incomplete, because they are both good theories that make good predictions, yet they are inconsistent with each other. Quantum mechanics is defined inside a fixed flat spacetime, and general relativity has no quantum fluctuations, everything is deterministic. So we know quite a bit about the two theories, and we also know that they both must be wrong.

Even more importantly, there is some knowledge which can never be written down.

If you don't believe me, think about this: can you learn how to ride a bicycle just by reading a book?