synthetic zero


May 31, 2003

Jenny sent me an email lamenting my lack of posting. So here I am.

Today I was thinking about systems and truth. It's difficult to express, because my thoughts were not verbal. Imagine a roiling, chaotic mass of energy and movement. To make sense of this mass we go in and try to grab onto a piece of it, because the whole thing is too difficult to see. Trying to find a better sense of it, we grab onto another piece. Each piece advertises itself as the truth, but the thing of it is, the pieces are all different. They can't all be true at once --- they negate each other. Yet --- the whole mass is incomplete without them all.

None of the pieces, by themselves, are the truth. The pieces, though they negate each other, are in fact all connected. At their root, they're all part of the same, roiling, chaotic mass. But the system as a whole has harmony. And the only way to fully participate in that is to let go of this attempt to grab too tightly onto any piece of it.

May 26, 2003

Bananas may be going extinct. It's actually a really serious problem (and no joke), but there is something inherently hilarious about this quote: "... Emile Frison, head of a worldwide network of banana researchers ..."

Went to see the Matthew Barney show at the Guggenheim. It was amazingly impressive in terms of size and volume, but I came away somewhat dissatisfied. Amy felt it was super-masculine art, overly gigantic and egotistical in some sense. I personally realized later that one of my problems with it is that it was too static --- many intense and arresting images, but they were frozen --- that is, the beings in these films and pictures were basically just poses. They weren't alive, creatures who were changing, they were just elements, the only change was a change in their relationship to other elements. For example, the famous guy with the bloody rag in his mouth --- what would happen if he started to swallow the rag, or spit it out? The whole image implies something intense, but too much change would shatter it. He places this guy in various settings, but it always has the feeling of a setup shot, meant just for that slice, that image, it isn't life. These beings don't breathe. It's no surprise that the movement in his films is often in slow motion.

If there is one criticism I would have of his work it is that it is too old-fashioned --- too objective and objectified. It is a dead, static world. I later discovered that Barney used to study medicine --- it makes sense --- his work has much of that quality of the Western medical paradigm, viewing the body as a machine, filled with parts simply moving and reacting like the proverbial billiard balls.

May 22, 2003

Every time we've ever thought we were close to understanding "everything" (and at those times, the missing knowledge always seemed like "just a few details on the margins that need to be filled in") something comes along and knocks us off of our pedestal of omniscience. Back in the nineteenth century, physicists thought we had pretty much worked out all of the major aspects of how the physical world worked --- the two great theories of the time, Maxwell's electromagnetic theory and Newton's mechanics, appeared to have the market cornered on how pretty much everything functioned. Then along came Michelson and Morley who, while attempting to measure the speed with which we were travelling through the ether, discovered that the speed of light was constant in all directions, no matter how fast you were moving.

Think about how strange this is: suppose a train were moving 50 miles an hour relative to the ground towards you, and you were standing still. You measure the train's speed and discover it is, indeed, moving 50 miles per hour. Now, suppose you got into a car and drove next to the tracks towards the oncoming train. Let's say you got up to 40 miles per hour. You then set up your instruments and you expect the train to be moving towards you at 90 miles per hour. But suppose instead you measure it and it is still coming towards you at 50 miles per hour. You then turn the car around and drive away from the train at 40 miles per hour; yet you find still your instruments showing the train approaching you at the same speed --- 50 miles per hour.

What Michelson and Morley observed was that was actually the case when it comes to light. No matter how fast you move relative to a beam of light, you always measure the light moving at the same speed relative to you. This result astounded physicists at the time, but initially nobody expected that it would end up shaking the very foundations of our concepts of space and time. Initially, people put forward a number of odd theories, such as the notion that rulers shrunk in the direction they were moving, precisely enough to compensate for the relative velocity, etc. However, it wasn't until Einstein put forward his special theory of relativity that the breadth of the implications of this anomaly became clear.

Kim sent me this commentary on the tax cut by Warren Buffett.

May 18, 2003

From the New York Times this morning:

"We used to have a brutal dictatorship that controlled everything," said Mahmoud Ahmed Uthman, chairman of Al Khair Financial Investments Company, an investment fund that has been active here for years. "When the government collapsed, there was nothing left except a great emptiness. And that emptiness has been filled with chaos."
Many people have cited the occupation of Germany and Japan as models for what can happen in Iraq. A better model would be what happened in Africa after many of the colonial powers withdrew --- a hasty attempt to set up representative democracy which quickly collapsed in internal chaos. The reason democracy is difficult to impose from the outside is because democracy isn't simply a formal system of government: it is also built up from the inside-out. One has to have pre-existing social habits and patterns which make up the fabric of an organized society --- precisely what you do not have in Iraq. One difference between Africa and Iraq is that we are there, staving off the possibility of a military coup --- but that's also our liability: we may have to remain there far longer than we ought to, leading to a long-term military occupation that is only going to give our enemies ample ammunition to recruit more operatives. You cannot win a terror war with conventional military tactics --- yet this is precisely what we've attempted to do here.

In retrospect it is truly unbelievable that we thought this Iraq operation was going to improve our long-term security. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Iraqis have looted nuclear storage dumps (which we failed to secure), the government of Hamid Karzai is barely hanging on because we've lost focus there, we're way behind on domestic security, and Al Qaeda is resurgent. Furthermore, the North Koreans are well on their way to producing a whole slew of nuclear weapons and we are already being forced to backtrack on our initial promises of returning Iraqis to self-rule. But let's look on the bright side: we've defeated a petty tyrant armed with ancient rusting Soviet-era tanks by devoting half of our overwhemlingly powerful high-tech military, and we now appear to be stuck there for the long haul. Oh yes, the war on terror is going just peachy.

May 16, 2003

Yes, I will be posting more frequently in the near future. Slowly, as I catch up on all the work I've fallen behind on because of the effort I had to expend switching to Linux, I will be writing more often again.

Tomorrow, seeing the Matrix sequel with Susan, Amy, Heather Anne, Victor, and one or two other people. I am not sure it will be as good as the original, but who cares.

At the meditation retreat last weekend I had all kinds of incredible breakthroughs. It's difficult to express, but a lot of them had to do with the fact that truth isn't accurately ascribed to propositions on their own. Truth is, more precisely, a quality of an active, ongoing investigation, one carried out by a mind, an awareness. That investigative process is part of what it means for something to be "true": it is not an independent property of the proposition itself. (This, by the way, has a lot to do with Godel's Theorem and Russell's Paradox as well as other thoughts along these lines).

Also visited Caroline and Matt that weekend, up in Burlington. We had a mediocre Italian meal together but had fun getting drenched and later sitting around eating Caroline's excellent pancakes. Next time we'll go to Montreal.

Red Hat does seem to be a pretty good bet as far as things mostly working out of the box. There are always small issues however, and you need to be prepared for those if you plan to go with Linux too. It is a rewarding journey however. I have migrated pretty much everything over now except those things that explicitly require Windows --- such as some of my work developing software for Windows.

May 9, 2003

Found the most incredible dessert place in the Arthur Avenue area --- the best fruit tart I have ever had. I would not hesistate to use the word "orgasmic" to describe it. Overall, I've found food in the Bronx to be better than food in Manhattan. Not quite what I was expecting.

The whole Palladium/DRM/TCPA issue is extremely worrisome. Basically, this is Microsoft's attempt to create a system architecture which will enable all sorts of potentially scary digital rights management technologies, spyware, and centralization of information flow. While I believe that DRM in and of itself is not necessarily a terrible idea, the technology that attempts to make it inviolable has many frightening implications, the worst of which is a centralization of the control of what software you can run and use to communicate with computers equipped with this Palladium system. A Palladium document could be encrypted so you cannot open it with any software other than the software that created it --- thus, new Microsoft Office documents could be no longer readable by open source programs like Open Office. Palladium might also require that you not only use "trusted" email programs but also "trusted" network providers and servers. It can allow companies or the government trying to cover up dirty secrets a way to prevent these secrets from ever becoming public. There are many frightening implications.

Meanwhile in my Linux saga... I've switched back to Red Hat. It turns out the problem with the slowness was due almost entirely to a single program called "magicdev" which, on Dell laptops and some other machines, causes a dramatic reduction in performance. In other respects Red Hat is more stable than Mandrake, so once I solved the problem, Red Hat was a better choice. Also, Red Hat's bug reporting website is a lot faster and better than Mandrake's.

May 4, 2003

My parents used to live in what is now called the East Village (then they just called it part of the Village), next to Tompkins Square Park. I have long heard the story that I was conceived in their storefront loft there, but they moved to Los Angeles before I was born. So, in a way, I've always thought of myself as a native New Yorker in a certain sense.

The strange thing is, a few months ago I went to the address where my parents told me I was conceived, and I took a look at it and I had no feeling of connection with the place at all. Susan was with me and I told her at the time that I just didn't feel anything towards that building. A month later my dad visited to help build the loft, and we went over there to take a look at it. I didn't tell him anything about my reaction to the place. He looked at the building that was apparently at the address he remembered. He paused, looked a bit puzzled, then he said, "oh, the number makes it look like it's that storefront there, but actually we lived here" (pointing to the storefront next door, which didn't have a number). Aha.