synthetic zero


May 29, 2005

It feels like I've been away from Los Angeles forever. It's so bright here... sun, sun, sun. No wonder I have a sunny disposition. It seeps into every crack in your skin, it's so yellow and blue, a saturated blue, not the calm, poignant, airy, milky bluishness of New York sunlight refracted over and over, reflected off of skyscrapers and filtered through cool glass; Los Angeles sun rains down on you directly through the ozone haze, blasting you with light, making it seem as though nothing could possibly go that wrong, no matter what happens to you. After all, it will always be sunny --- on the radio, the weather report: "in the high 60's and low 70's today, and much the same through the weekend." I had to laugh. That's the weather report every day. Why even bother with a weather report? People never talk about the weather in Los Angeles.

But it's the driving that really sets Los Angeles apart, particularly driving in the off hours, which is when I drive, most of the time, here --- I avoid rush hour by working flex time and at home, so I miss most of the traffic. I just drove to listen to my brother play in the Santa Monica Symphony, the high end of the traffic flowing at 75-80 mph, and it only takes a minute or two between the garage and the freeway, so you're suddenly on the other side of the city, in the same time it takes me to creep down into Manhattan on the express train I can traverse huge distances in my car, zipping back and forth in silent speed, super fast yet unhurried. It's impossible to feel trapped when you're travelling at 80 mph, even if you're only going from one point to another within the same metropolis, you feel as though you're escaping, getting somewhere outside even if you never leave the county or even the city. It's exhilirating and perhaps one of the reasons it's hard to take anything too seriously here. You always feel you can just press a little harder on the pedal and leave the city, the state, the country, or the planet, depending on how far you want to go.

May 27, 2005

Taking care of my grandmother while my parents are away (they bear the brunt of taking care of her ordinarily, I am merely pinch-hitting on this visit to L.A., and even at that, with help from some professional caretakers)... My grandmother has suffered a long, gradual mental decline due to strokes. I went in there tonight and, as usual, she was talking about how her head was "empty" and (speaking in Japanese) how she didn't understand anything, and she didn't know anything. That's one of the things she often repeats, with great urgency: "what should I do?" "I don't understand anything," and "please teach me," (sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese). She usually says it so repeatedly it becomes a sort of mantra, even something that she doesn't seem to really be saying under her own control. Sometimes she'll be shouting or even screaming and you go in there and ask "What's the matter, Bachan (grandmother)?" and she'll say "Oh, nothing, there's nothing wrong. I'm sorry to be making so much noise (yakamashi), I apologize (gomennasai, sumimasen)."

Tonight while she was repeating, again, how she doesn't know anything, her head is "empty," etc., I decided to do the thing I sometimes do at such times, which is to bring up her memories of the past, which sometimes gets her on a different, less repetitive, track. I mentioned the fact that she used to run a tropical fish store in the old days. Unlike in the past when she would then start reminiscing a little, this time she was more philosophical; in fits and starts, still repeating herself, she turned to me and said (over a period of many repetitions): "Now that I'm old, I don't worry about anything. I don't know anything, but I also don't care that I don't know anything. When I was young, it was different; I worried about the store, I worried about money. Now, I don't need money, and I have no idea what happened to the store, but I don't care. Isn't that funny? Young men, they have stores, do you have a store? And they worry about them. But I am just here, in the bed. I am here. I don't have anything to worry about." It was nice to hear her express a more complex set of thoughts. She used to be a formidable woman, totally on top of everything and very intelligent; but it's interesting that even now, in her severely diminished state, something of her old perceptiveness survives. She is still very thoughtful even now, with only a tiny part of her once-great mind still functioning.

May 24, 2005

This deal is historic, a huge relief, and a tremendous victory for the principle of comity in the Senate. To ultraconservatives who see this as a "defeat," I can only say: how shortsighted of you to put your narrow political ambitions ahead of the principle of the protection of the rights of the minority in the Senate. Had the roles been reversed and the Democrats had been threatening to overturn the filibuster by a straight majority vote --- I would have been vehemently opposed to it. One thing that some people fail to understand is that some rules shouldn't be changed easily --- allowing a Senate rule that ordinarily takes a 2/3rds vote to be changed on a straight majority vote would have set a terrible precedent for the future. A Senate rule that can be changed on a majority vote is not a rule at all --- some rules are meant to be hard to change, that's why the Founding Fathers put in supermajority requirements for changing the Constitution and why the Senate ordinarily requires a 2/3rds vote to change a rule. This is a victory for the Senate and the United States --- it narrowly averts a potentially disastrous erosion of one of the most important traditions of the governance of this country. It is shocking how cavalierly conservatives are willing to overthrow hundreds of years of well-founded governing principles in the name of a raw desire to enact a narrow agenda. Rest assured that Democrats would not have attempted this sort of bogus maneuver (based on a strained misinterpretation of the Constitution that essentially says the Senate cannot follow or make its own rules when voting on judges, but rather must adhere to a different set of rules). The devolution of the United States has taken a pause. This is one of those important moments in history that we might look back on as a turning point --- can the good guys actually win? Can we Americans forestall the rapid decline of our nation? We dodged a bullet, a bombshell, yesterday --- one which would have had far-reaching, disastrous consequences for the future viability of our position as the preeminent country in the world.

May 22, 2005

Please sign MoveOn's petition opposing the use of the "nuclear option" in the Senate.

May 21, 2005

Seen outside on the next building:

Time to mine the old referrer logs again. Via abuddhas memes: Sex, Drugs, and Poststructuralism:

I remember... when we used to wake up at midnight... Mozart's requiem of voices would greet us on the laser gyrating platinum... lines of coke on Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason", (should have been the "Critique of Pure Judgement" what fools...) vodka and ecstasy would peak us above the horizon... like vampires we would awake from our coffins, pupils dilating into orbs of dead moons, seeking not blood, but the life pulse of the city's techno beats...
Meanwhile, Paul has begun writing again, after a long absence (actually, a while ago --- I hadn't gotten around to reactivating him in my favorites list until today).

Other interesting weblogs from my logs:

mimi smartypants
Non, c'est réalité


May 20, 2005

Paradigms Lost

I was thinking a bit today about my friend Katharine Tillman's old fogey professors who were teaching a class in which they wanted the students to all write a MANIFESTO (always written in all caps) and to sit in a "magic circle," etc. The whole thing sounded like something straight out of the 70's, really cheesy and really out of date, despite the fact that there were some really astute and interesting authors on the reading list, and the subject matter was worthwhile. This kind of approach might have been fresh back then, but we've come a long way since the 70's... What makes people get stuck in the past like that? Never updating their ideas to take into account what has happened in the interim?

In this specific case it's partly that the professors in question were sort of mediocre, but more generally I think it is that when times change, it's easy to see what is being lost when something new comes forward --- focusing on the loss, you miss the value in what is new. I think as I grow older I really need to keep this in mind: how to retain not only the ability to value what I already value, but also be willing to let go of what I value. As Kuhn pointed out, when a paradigm shift happens it isn't just an advance --- it's also often a loss, because some things that you can say in the old paradigm may be unsayable in the new --- but that isn't always a bad thing.

In other news: I rode my road bike to the office and back today. Normally, it takes up to 35-40 minutes to get there by subway; about 30-35 if I take my folding bike on the subway and bike crosstown. Riding my road bike from the Bronx, through Central Park and to the office in the Garment District --- 32 minutes to get there, and 25 minutes to get home (!) My return ride was faster than any trip I've ever taken to or from the office via any means except a car, at night, when there is no traffic at all. Incredible.

May 17, 2005

People tend to think of philosophy as a sort of ivory tower activity; but I think if you look back at the history of humanity, particularly the more destructive movements, they have been driven by subtle philosophical mistakes couched in Utopian or idealistic language, pushed through to their logical, and bad, conclusion. It seems the key thing that unifies these mistakes is a sense of certainty --- being too certain that your intellectual framework is correct leaves not enough room for reality to seep in between the cracks.

In fact, it seems to me that nearly every major human-caused disaster can be traced back to a subtle philosophical error of one sort or another, usually in the name of virtue and good and advancing humanity --- one that couched itself in idealistic terms. The Crusades, corporate abuses, fascism, Stalinism, religious intolerance, racism, oppressive working environments, environmental destruction, genocide, and on and on can be traced back to some impulse couched in idealistic terms ("protect racial purity!"), carried forward with revolutionary zeal. The key thing that turned what might have been just an intellectual mistake into a human tragedy was precisely this desire to go too far, based on an impossible certainty. Of course, some disasters are caused by explicit ill intent; criminals, robber barons, etc., selfishly do things they know are "wrong." But the worst disasters are usually carried out by people who think they're fighting for a good cause.

May 15, 2005

Recently, I've discovered that my daily Brompton folding bike commute (partly on the subway, partly across town) has strengthened me to the point that I can now ride my Specialized Allez at very high speeds for much longer distances than I was ever able to muster in the past --- so I have a renewed interest in riding my road bike (which also means I need to find a way to lock it if I'm going to use my bike for anything other than commuting to places where I can bring the bike inside).

Nearly everyone in New York who carries a bike lock around with them seems to use the Kryptonite New York Chain, a 6.1 lb. behemoth that certainly looks frighteningly impenetrable. However, I was always a bit suspicious of this, and, as it turns out, Kryptonite has now released an even heavier New York Fahgettaboudit Chain, weighing a massive 8.4 pounds, and this seems to be the chain of choice if you really want to thwart thieves. But 8.4 pounds!? Kryptonite itself rates its redesigned New York 3000 U-lock as highly as the Fahgettaboudit Chain, however, and it is a far more reasonable 3.9 lbs. Thankfully I did a little research and discovered (scroll down) the Kryptonite New York 3000 fared better in tests by Cycling Plus magazine than even the Fahgettaboudit Chain. Whew! Saved from what could have been punishing extra weight... this seems to be the best lock for my purposes, and a lot lighter --- not as versatile as the chain (can't lock it to a light post), but that's something I'm willing to sacrifice to save 4 and a half pounds.

May 14, 2005

Meditating this weekend with Max, Jamal, and Sue. Afterwards, biking! I have to say I love my bike, and I highly recommend it: the Specialized Allez A1 (similar to this bike.) I got it for a mere $650 a couple of years ago and it is a fantastic ride. Alas, Specialized has discontinued the bottom-of-the-line model which I purchased; you now have to pony up around $900 to get a new Allez --- however many dealers still carry the lower-end Allez bikes and I highly recommend them. These bikes have race-tuned geometry which makes a surprising amount of difference --- they feel like sports cars. My Allez leaps forward at the slightest touch of the pedal, climb hills as though it had a power pack --- it's truly amazing. It's just fun, fun, fun to ride, fast, handles beautifully, all for a price that's a lot more reasonable than the thousands that most racing bikes command. If you're even thinking of getting a new bike, consider this one for city riding.

May 12, 2005

Sometimes you realize that you just need to live a life you were meant to live, not a life that seems most logical. If you don't live a life you were meant to live, it is like grinding yourself against the edge of the lathe of heaven; slowly, inexorably, you lose your life long before you are dead.

May 11, 2005

The thing is, you replace the tall kitchen garbage bag, and you think, here it is, it's empty. Ah. This is going to last me forever. I can just fill and fill and fill, and it's going to slowly fill up to the top, and it's going to be so easy, just throw something in it, and it'll fall into the deep hole to rest comfortably at the bottom. However, what actually happens is the bag fills right up to the top really quickly, and for quite some time you seem to be just sort of perching the next item on the top, precariously, and at first you're able to sort of smush it down but then it seems to really be completely full and you don't seem to be able to really smush it down any further but you're too lazy to replace the bag right away, and, after all, you can still perch one more item on top and close the lid and it seems to be fine. It stays like this for quite some time; for quite a while all you seem to be doing is perching the next item on the top of the pile, not really even smushing it down much, yet it still keeps accepting more garbage, until one day it just doesn't seem to be right to keep trying to perch the next item on there, and you replace the tall kitchen garbage bag, and you think, here it is, it's empty.

May 10, 2005

I am going to hold my next loft event on Wednesday, July 6, and Saturday, July 9, and it will include an incredible singing-in-the-shower performance by McCloud Zicmuse. If you have art, film, video, music, or performance you'd like to submit, please email me or mail it in.

May 9, 2005

After a week and a half to two weeks of being unable to get restful sleep and feeling generally exhausted, including when I met Alyse Emdur for lunch and some walking around atriums and hotel lobbies and covered garden/alleyways between buildings (despite enjoying the walk and conversation we were also both feeling quite out of sorts then, she because of weeks of concerns about many changes to her life, including her attempt to photograph a noisy nightclub scene for a job, which ended up leaving her feeling quite ill, and me having spent a couple of weeks barely able to sleep --- though we still had a very nice time), I went to see my neighbor Susan Jenkins take her refuge vows at the Shambala Center in New York. Sitting in the room on the zafus, meditating a little while the speaker gave a talk and they chanted and took their vows, I suddenly felt lighter. It was as though someone from Susan's lineage had seen my distress and reached down and said, "hmm, this one has gotten himself in a bit of trouble, here you go." Or something. In any event I felt better and sure enough, that night I had my first good night's sleep in weeks.

May 8, 2005

I have been feeling very out of sorts lately. Don't know exactly what it is --- have not been able to really rest when I am asleep. It's quite unlike me.

May 7, 2005

Can we really affect one another? It's really an interesting question. On the one hand, we're sheer, like a cliff (as a Zen saying goes), we're each living in impenetrable worlds that we create for ourselves, and one cannot become someone else --- we're all in our absolutely unique situations, and from that perspective we cannot be reached, at least not in a direct way. On the other hand, one could say that we're all fundamentally interdependent; where does your breath end and mine begin? So how could one say that we're actually separate?

So on the one hand, it's certainly true that you cannot save me and I cannot save you; for two reasons --- one, I don't need saving (no one does), and two, I can only save myself (I can only see for myself that I don't need saving, which is the only kind of "saving" that can ever really meaningfully happen). However, it's also true that without a little help, the prospect of me saving myself seems to me a lot less probable; in fact, at certain crucial moments, a little nudge or inspiration or the perfect response to a question could be just the thing to help me to see something that I had forgotten or might have otherwise overlooked. Other people can help me in other ways --- by providing a context, an atmosphere, so to speak, a certain confidence, or just an example. It seems to me there are many ways we can help, in this sense, each other; even as it is also true that we can't really help other people. Any effective help has to have the other side involved in some way, and ultimately a recognition, at some point, that there is no need for help, that both parties don't really exist as separate beings, and that the help has already arrived before anything has happened.

May 6, 2005

Saw a beautiful piece by Ryuji Yamaguchi tonight at PS122. He and three other dancers performed an amazing, low-key, evocative work called mundane; a combination of ordinary movement, dance movement, and sudden transitions (the transitions were the best part of it --- perfectly timed and executed by these very talented dancers). Delicate, vivid, striking, and beautiful. He's clearly very talented and I hope he goes far with his group. Unfortunately, the second piece on the program, C.A.R.O.U.S.E.L., by the Vangeline Theater was as bad as Yamaguchi's piece was good. Although a few performers did a decent job, the overall effect of having many poorly- or simply non-trained dancers wasn't, as one might hope, interesting --- it just made the piece seem sloppy and amateurish. If the choreography were more specifically tailored to untrained dancers, that might have been fine; but that wasn't the case, and the uneven talents of the performers really stood out. The troupe advertises itself as "postmodern butoh" but real Butoh dancers are very highly trained, and these dancers were mostly quite sloppy, unable to execute the movements with the precision or ease needed to pull them off. It's hard to know if the choreography would have worked even if it had been performed well, however; it was mostly uninteresting and in many cases silly. The contrast with Yamaguchi's piece couldn't have been more stark.

My housemate Teresa, who didn't see the show, but who is involved in the dance world, when I told her about this, suggested that appreciating dance is always subjective. I would have to say that although of course I agree there is always an element of the subjective in anything (to the point that one can never create any sort of absolute scale of quality), nevertheless I have to say that quality in art goes beyond mere taste. The fact that it is not possible to completely explain why, in language, something is better than something else, does not mean quality (while not a universal absolute) is mere opinion. Is James Joyce or Picasso or Emily Dickinson or Stravinsky merely good as a matter of personal taste? Certainly I can imagine someone thinking that Yamaguchi's piece wasn't good for a variety of reasons. However, it was clearly in a different class from the Vangeline piece --- you can't even compare them. They were playing in different leagues.

Of course, I do think snobbery should be relative. For example, when I go to see a puff Hollywood blockbuster I don't try to compare it with Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky. I judge the blockbuster relative to the criteria of the blockbuster, was it a good blockbuster, not was it the best film I could ever imagine anyone making. If the Vangeline piece weren't trying to be high art, "postmodern butoh", etc., and if it had been more obviously done in an amateur way, then maybe it could have worked with the same dancers, but for what it was trying to be, it didn't work. But my point is I think there is a difference between someone who dislikes, say, Tarkovsky, for reasons of taste, and someone who dislikes him because they are incapable of even perceiving and/or understanding his work. This is where I suppose I am a snob: I don't think differences of perception are always entirely relative --- I believe it is possible to say, this person isn't capable of perceiving certain things, and therefore their inability to appreciate Tarkovsky amounts to a kind of deficit in their ability to appreciate a certain kind of quality. Perhaps, of course, they would be able to perceive quality elsewhere that I would overlook; but I don't think this is quite the same thing as saying quality is primarily a matter of personal taste.

May 5, 2005

On a road trip several years ago, Sue and I were driving through California and I was asleep in the passenger seat, but I kept waking up just as Sue was about to drive off the road --- she was spacing out or something, and I would wake up just in time to yell "Sue!" I sometimes think that she and I died back then and this life I am living now is just a fleeting dream, a tendril of a life lived in a ghost future that isn't really here. Alternately, I imagine that in most alternate universes we are dead; this is only the improbable one in which I kept waking up just before we ran off the road. Sue and I are both alive for ourselves, but for our relatives and friends, in most universes, we are dead, died in a tragic car accident years ago.

May 2, 2005

There is only one infinite game.

May 1, 2005

Some people want to be unique, the only person to have ever thought of something, etc. I, on the other hand, am oppressed by that idea. I feel comforted when I find out that someone else has thought of something similar to what I've thought of. Sure, I like to be on the cutting edge, but I feel validated when I find out at least the overall context of what I'm saying is not original. It's like coming home. Isn't it a stronger position to realize others have had similar thoughts, and one might be able to learn from that, participate in a community, and contribute something new to it?

Of course, even if someone else has thought of something before, they haven't thought of it in precisely the same way I have. And they are in a different situation from me. So --- it's not pointless for me to repeat them, because there is no such thing as pure repetition. Pure repetition is impossible; it would be undetectable (to repeat something precisely is the same as it only happening once). And if it is a spontaneous response, it's not really a repetition.