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November 27, 1999

An exhausting week of "vacation" which brings with it the inevitable resurgence of partially-dormant projects (for which I get paid), and the concomitant loss of unassigned time that comes with that. Furthermore, during this rather busy vacationing I have been remiss in checking my favorite sites, and so I just find myself catching up now with Paul's now-active Alamut. On November 24 he quoted my October 20 comments regarding preparation versus planning, to wit:

"There is a difference between preparation and planning; plans tend to assume that the future is predictable, that events can be made to unfold, as they say, according to plan. One prepares, however, for the unexpected, for things to happen out of the bounds of your plans. Plans involve trying to control events, but preparation means trying not to let events control you. I don't believe in too much planning, but I do believe in lots of preparation."
In response, he has this to say:
"I like what Mitsu wrote. It makes sense to think in terms of (tactical) preparation rather than (tactical/strategic) planning. However I'm still bothered by the question of 'goals'. Tactics are not goal oriented. Tactics are about survival and, when considered this way, tactics are 'safe'. You spawn when you need to and you die. Strategies, on the other hand, are all about goals and are dangerous. You're on a mission from God when you've got strategies (and armed and dangerous to boot). 'What do you want to do?' 'Where do you want to go?' If you have an answer to these questions -- you have goals and should have strategies. Is it possible to achieve goals by simply being prepared? I don't think so."
A good point, and something which I have been discussing with Susan and Ken and other friends recently, as it happens. I fully agree that mere passive reaction to situations is not particuarly interesting, and further agree that an artist almost by definition cannot be concerned with only survival or reaction. However, I still have an issue with the ordinary idea of a goal.

The main problem I have with the usual conception of a goal is that they tend to be explicitly conscious: we know what we want, and we try to achieve it. But what if we are part of something larger, something which we might only have clues about at first, an unfolding mystery, something which is obscure until it is fully revealed? I believe that even when we create as individuals, we draw upon resources which lie far outside what we can consciously conceive (for example, the personal or the collective unconscious, etc.).

Remaining open to a larger context which might shatter whatever preconceptions we might have about what we think we are doing seems important to me, somehow: being open enough to hear the quiet voice of the unexpected, to be able to fine-tune one's mission every instant. Haven't you ever looked back at a period in your life and suddenly saw a pattern, something that was clearly there from the beginning, but which you were unaware of until much later? Staying alert enough so as not to derail those patterns with a premature conclusion about where you think you are going --- this seems important to me at least.

So yes to creativity, and yes to active participation in the world or with the world, but I want a creativity which is bigger than any conscious goals I might take up. That is not to say that I think we ought never to have goals: just that we ought to remember they're not the whole story. Perhaps it is enough to step back periodically far enough, as Paul later says (25 November): from a large enough perspective. I suppose I advocate stepping back early and often, and over and over again.

November 26, 1999

Happy Thanksgiving (those of you who live in the States). Probably one of the most important holidays here in some ways, even though the historical symbolism is rather odd (a celebration of thanks which we inherited from the former indigenous population, whom we later mercilessly exterminated). Well, we try to make up for that now by going to see Dances With Wolves. In a way, however, it is apt that one of our biggest holidays is a tradition that started with the native population here, just as Christmas is a former pagan holiday dressed up in Christian clothing. The ancients can only laugh...

People are making ultra-low-budget feature films using inexpensive "prosumer" DV (digital video) cameras. As noted in that article, The Celebration, which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1998, was shot in its entirety with a tiny handheld DV camera, a Sony PC-7, and later transferred to 35mm film. The PC-7 is similar to the $1250 Canon Elura which I recently purchased (the Elura has slightly better picture quality I think).

November 23, 1999

No, that wasn't an attempt by me to replace Synthetic Zero with a new conceptual art project to be titled Inexplicable Broken Links Sans Context; it was just a stupid mistake on my part way late last night as I uploaded a file I was using for my collaboration with Miranda July to my root directory. Apologies to all who may have been mystified by the odd apparition.

I've bought a whole bunch of video equipment recently. It feels rather extravagant and it's not as though I can really afford it, but somehow I went from considering the purchase of a $180 video capture board to buying a new "prosumer" DV video camera, a (cheap) new computer to use as the basis of a nonlinear video editing workstation, and a DV video editing board. The whole time my mantra was: as cheap as possible without being too cheap to be really usable, but in the end I went a lot farther than I had originally intended. However, I ended up with a capable semi-professional system which I and others can use to make some decent video work. These new DV cameras really are pretty nice; the higher-end $3,000 cameras are being used by professionals now for real applications instead of the traditional $30,000 Betacam SP camcorders.

My new camera, the Canon Elura, isn't quite up to that level, but it is surprisingly close, and can be and is used by professionals when they need a high-quality lightweight camera. It is very small and can be had for as little as $1250 (via Pricescan). It has lots of nifty features, including the ability to accept analog video and record it to DV, capture video in a film-like progressive scan mode, and take very sharp pictures (in good light) that are nearly professional quality.

Another good street price monitoring site is Pricewatch.

An excellent article on the outrageous harrassment of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist falsely accused of leaking nuclear secrets to the Chinese. The FBI now admits that they have uncovered new evidence that exonerates Lee, yet they are still pressing ahead with a frivolous prosecution of "gross negligence" because he can't find a few tapes. I see some big-time FBI ass-covering going on. It looks like Kenneth Starr isn't the only out of control prosecutor out there.

November 19, 1999

Back from a very exhausting trip to Comdex in Vegas. Didn't really have much reason to go, particularly, except to visit a friend who was also there, and an excuse to just go on a little drive out of L.A. Since my last visit a few years ago they've built several new hotel/casino complexes (one wonders how they can all survive when new extravaganzas keep getting built?) The strangest and most paradoxical of them all is the Bellagio, which purports to be the "fine art influenced" hotel/casino. They actually have an art gallery in the hotel, which charges $12 a head for entry ($6 to Nevada residents). It's just two rooms, but the collection is worth about half a billion dollars, apparently. Although the gallery is predictably heavily weighted towards Impressionists, interestingly the de Kooning and Jackson Pollock are the most prominently featured works, which you see immediately upon entering.

There is nothing fake about the artwork, but still the whole atmosphere has a strong scent of the simulacrum: is this an art gallery or an art gallery ride? It all seems to be an aggrandizement of the chairman of the corporation that owns the gallery (who is also the curator: and he makes sure we all know it, as he narrates the audio tour!) His comments about the work are a bit odd: not entirely unsophisticated, he seems to be very much interested in the whole subject, but he likes to turn the paintings into stories for the most part. The decor of the hotel, despite being supposedly influenced by Monet, is still simple-minded and gaudy, though I have to say that the color schemes were the first of any casino in Vegas I have visited that actually seemed to overpower the glow of the slot machines.

Also visited the fake New York, the fake Paris, and the fake Venice. Whew, that was tiring and for the most part completely uninteresting, except perhaps for the fake Venice, which had an amusing simulated indoor blue sky over a simulated Venetian canal, complete with upscale clothing and jewelry stores quite at odds with the typical shopping habits of the usual Midwestern visitor to Vegas (and, notably, the shops were mostly devoid of customers.)

November 16, 1999

More on the subject of listening. In ancient Japan, there is a story of two samurai, adversaries, who met and spent a half an hour in complete silence before one of them conceded defeat. What is required for a feat of this kind is a proactive sort of listening; that is to say, in contrast to the usual passive way that people often tend to listen (in which one waits for explanations with the presumption that one's prejudices will be confirmed), a listener endeavors to actively construct an understanding of the other person from the smallest hints. One seeks surprise: that is, what is important is not what confirms one's preconceptions, but rather anything that tends to shake those preconceptions. One can apply this to listening to the world as well as other people.

A John Cage discussion list: called Silence.

November 15, 1999

Recently I've been having conversations about listening. Back in college I took a class in algebraic topology from a professor who hadn't studied it for a while. It was an introductory class so he had no real difficulty, but still, he would often stop in the middle of a chalkboard demonstration, turn to us with a confused look, and ask, "What comes next?" I found out later (see below) that he did this on purpose. Most of the students found this infuriating, but I enjoyed the challenge of thinking through the arguments for myself.

Later a few of us went to lunch with him, and he told this story: he once knew a mathematician who always seemed to be unsure of everything and who gave fumbling, unclear lectures. He wrote excellent papers, however. But what was really interesting was that the famous professors who gave brilliant, clear lectures never seemed to produce any notable grad students; but this guy managed to consistently produce highly successful students.

Our professor thought this was because these grad students were unintimidated by their advisor (and thus encouraged that they too could be mathematicians), and also because the unclear explanations forced them to think everything through for themselves.

It seems to me that most people seem to want explanations to be perfectly clear: which is to say, they don't have to do much work to understand. But there are things which cannot be easily explained, or even if they could be... umm... what comes next?

Nathan Shedroff (of Vivid Studios)'s theory of information interaction design. While I don't agree with everything there, he does make several good points, including: some messages cannot be presented simply, information is only meaningful in a context, there are more modalities than text to convey a message, and people learn more vividly from experience than from the dry presentation of data. He doesn't fully consider, however, experience that does not convey an explicitly identifiable message (i.e., a painting, for instance, as Heather Anne discussed on October 21 and 25), and he also wants to fit everything into the straitjacket of goal-orientation (i.e., the notion that design should always be aimed at an explicit goal).

November 13, 1999

Paul Perry praises E.O. Wilson's rant against postmodernism (November 12 entry). I have to say that I myself was not as impressed with Wilson's article.

Like many people, Wilson conflates postmodernism with a sort of naive relativism or nihilism. While I admit that many people who call themselves postmodernists sometimes behave as though this were the case, it isn't the point of the postmodern critique.

Wilson seems to think that postmodernists say that we cannot know anything at all --- this is wrong. What postmodernists critique is not the possibility of any sort of knowledge but rather the notion of an absolute, context-free knowledge. Postmodernists claim that knowledge always refers to a constructed paradigm. The fact that paradigms are constructed, however, does not mean that they are all equivalent (and this is the crux of Wilson's radical misunderstanding); it simply means that, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out, paradigm shifts can and do occur, and they can continue to occur without limit.

Far from cutting off inquiry: this extends it infinitely. More precisely, it extends the questions one can ask to those that can rock the very foundations of one's assumptions about the world. One can never rest assured that there are no hidden assumptions that cannot be questioned; that's the point that Wilson misses.

It is true, however, that the time has come to re-emphasize the study of structure, because much of what passes for postmodernism today obsesses about the lack of absolute structure, but that's gotten old. I find it more interesting to accept that while all knowledge is context-dependent, we still can examine and investigate structure. Some people call this angle post-postmodernism, though it isn't really inconsistent with postmodernism, it is merely a more mature emphasis.

November 12, 1999

Miranda July emailed me yesterday to ask me for some help ... eventually I ended up volunteering to do her website for her, in exchange for some videos and CDs of hers. I consider it a very fair trade, mostly because as I have noted before, I greatly admire her work, and frankly I'm jumping at the chance to help support it even if in just this way.

It occurred to me the other day that I don't really remember things very well, at least not the way most people do. What passes for memory in me is really just figuring everything out over and over again, really fast, from scratch. Rote memorization is very difficult for me; I need some sort of context to provide motivation.

Somehow, however, my relative inability to memorize meaningless facts didn't hurt me in school; in fact, it provided something of a boost. Since I had to figure everything out from scratch, over and over again, I got very good at figuring things out quickly, in general. A new subject and a familiar subject aren't all that different to me, since I only remember things by relating them to other things I already know anyway. And with my trusty computers, which are very good at remembering meaningless, context-free facts, I don't have to bother with that anyway.

November 10, 1999

Tonight, I went to the party for the 25th anniversary of Willamette Week, the Portland alternative weekly, with Susan. Lots of people we don't know in a giant room decorated by a guy who used to do the Academy Awards when he lived in L.A., i.e., big swaths of fabric, giant displays with old issues of Willamette Week, etc. Not knowing anyone, I tried sneaking around to surreptitiously listen in on conversations, but alas, nothing juicy, just people blandly commenting on how nice the decor was, or talking about their kids, or whatever. Did manage to find and chat briefly with a few people we did know, but the whole situation felt so artificial that it was impossible to engage in anything like an interesting conversation.

The whole unsatisfying aftertaste of that party made me wonder about the architecture of parties: there has to be a better way to get strangers to interact and have a good time. I recall being told about a device used at this year's Dada Ball: the centerpieces were live human heads (sticking up through the table), with which one was encouraged to interact. Another good feature of those parties is that there is dinner served; a shared activity.

Perhaps the Willamette Week party would have been spiced up by adding a more erotic dimension to the architecture of the space (courtesy Lemonyellow, November 10.)

November 8, 1999

Andy Edmonds sends me a link to, his personal search engine/index/weblog. Browse it here. He's created a searchable index to a very large number of links he has catalogued on subjects ranging from AI to hyperfiction to Web HCI. He's recently added a weblog to his site as well, using Blogger.

Disobey and Ghost Sites are often amusing.

November 7, 1999

Today while looking for something entirely different I stumbled upon Vannevar Bush's famous 1948 Atlantic Monthly article presaging the emergence of hypertext. A number of predictions in his article sound quaint today, and his use of language such as "a roomful of girls armed with keypunches" is jarring to the modern ear, but scroll past that stuff to the paragraph in section 5 which begins, "So much for the manipulation of ideas..." Aside from his prescience in predicting the emergence of hypertext and hyperlinks as a way of navigating information (which he refers to as "building a trail"), he also predicts: "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them," and in particular he foresees the arising of "a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record."

November 4, 1999

Today I spent some time thinking about hypertext theory and critical theory. Several years ago, I worked on a large interactive entertainment project which combined algorithms with user input to navigate the story space. Unlike traditional hypertexts, however, the links were not hard-coded, but rather chosen on the basis of algorithms created via a collaboration between the writers and the programmers. At the time we thought of that project as a sort of dynamic hypertext intended to induce the user to ascribe personality to the characters represented in and by the content. Now that I re-read this hypertext theory, it occurs to me that one could apply some of the lessons we learned from that first project to the Web; that is, it might be interesting to think about a system which algorithmically mediates the user's navigation through some content (rather than just using search engines and hard, i.e. fixed, links).

An interesting hypertext on the application of literary theory to hypertexts.

David Nathan explores the semiotics of hypertext and hyperlinks on the web and discusses implications for resisting the centralization of information distribution.

More sites on culture studies, critical theory, and hypertext theory.

November 3, 1999

Sifl and Olly is the funniest television show I have ever seen (just imagine two sock puppets doing a multimedia parody of Philip Glass just after hosting a slightly surreal home shopping network show and before sending a reporter back in time to accidentally alter the genetic history of the planet and you'll get a feel for what the show is like). Unfortunately, it is no longer playing on MTV. However, MTV is planning to put new episodes of the show on the Internet, available for download via their site. The future of video will someday be on demand distribution; let Sifl and Olly lead the way.

November 2, 1999

Bill Wyman thinks San Francisco already sucked before the Internet millionaires showed up. A former Bay Area resident myself, I have to agree. While I have many friends who still live there, so I am forced to visit it fairly often (an experience made wonderful solely by the presence of my friends, but not by the aggregate effect of their environs), I spend most of my time shuttling between the incomparably lovely, supremely livable, and weirdly delightful Portland and the less lovely but somehow still affable Los Angeles. What's wrong with San Francisco? It's a neglected city --- not enough attention paid to the things that really work when it comes to new urban design.

I'm glad to see Salon covering this, because the only hope San Francisco has is to wake up and smell the sprawl: this fomer jewel of the left coast is now the single least livable metropolitan area west of --- well, west of anywhere. How did it come to this pass? Decades of mismanagement and failure of vision. Is there hope? I have no idea.

RealNetworks has released a patch to ameliorate its incredible blunder with respect to privacy issues in its useful and popular RealJukebox software. I'll give them another chance --- this time.


late october