synthetic zero


November 30, 2001

Listened to an excellent This American Life this afternoon; one of the stories they discussed was the role of CIA in overthrowing the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, using psyops like Radio Liberation, among other techniques. The end result? We installed a right-wing dictator who was assassinated three years later, and Guatemala saw a succession of military dictatorships intermixed with unstable civilian governments. A sad legacy. One can only hope we will try to fuck up Afghanistan less this time than we fucked up so many countries, including Afghanistan, in the past.

Early modern human behavior originated in Africa, 70,000 years ago, not in Europe, 40,000 years ago, as had been previously assumed.

Johns Hopkins researchers have developed a strain of bacteria that selectively kills cancer cells. In a test with mice which had large tumors transplanted from human colon cancer cells, over half of the tumors were destroyed by the bacteria in less than 24 hours. Unfortunately, some of the mice also died as a result of toxins released when the tumors were killed. With further research, however, this could become a remarkably effective treatment for cancer. (This really is the 21st Century).

November 29, 2001

Met with S. and J. and a friend of theirs last night while they were passing through the city. Had sushi at an upscale LA restaurant, surrounded by people who were overdressed in that painfully casual, too-shiny style that only people in LA can achieve. S. and I didn't have much time to talk, but it was good to meet again. Unfortunately I had a business meeting today which made it impossible for me to show them around my home town of Gardena.

November 27, 2001

The most important thing is to remember that things are not always what they appear to be. Don't flatten that layer between perception and interpretation. No one is who we think they are, even ourselves. No situation is what we think it is. That person who scares or annoys you might be a saint; that person whom you trust implicitly could be a scoundrel. That fool might be wise and vice-versa. And even if you found out the truth that wouldn't be the truth, either.

Which reminds me of the first scene in Sanjuro where Toshiro Mifune's character encounters a group of young samurai discussing a crisis; the young leader describes a meeting he had with his uncle. When the young man had told his uncle about the treachery he suspected, his uncle had said to him: "How do you know I am not the traitor myself?" Shocked by this, the young man went to see another high official, and the official looked very grave and perturbed by what the young man had reported to him that his uncle had said, and the official told him to gather his people together and he would meet him there. Mifune's character, upon hearing this, told the young men that they had it all backwards: it was the uncle who was trustworthy, and the official who was the traitor.

Surf the web of the past: The Web Archive. From time to time people write to me asking what happened to Lemonyellow, and I tell them that Heather Anne has given up on it at least for the foreseeable future. Luckily for me I archived her writing but I see now I need not have done this: here's a snapshot of the last version of her site.

November 26, 2001

The odd thing is that at 36 years of age I still feel like a kid; my parents feel like my parents, my brother like my brother (my "bro"). Everyone is slightly older, yes, but still, in the end, I don't feel like a middle-aged man, settled and substantial. I do feel quite a bit wiser than I was at 26 --- though I'm not sure I haven't lost some wisdom I possessed at 16 or 6 --- and certainly there are many weighty issues that I have resolved to my satisfaction, and I look to the further exploration of these matters with relish and interest; but still, the sense of being an adult remains elusive. Perhaps this is because I do not yet have children.

November 24 (b), 2001

Former Taliban intelligence chief had protested the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, saying at the time to an AP reporter (anonymously), 'It would have been better if they would have cut the throat of my own son.' He has now defected to the Northern Alliance and stayed in Kabul when the city fell. Hmm, maybe the next government to contemplate blowing up giant Buddha statues will think twice. Karmic retribution for destroying statues hewn into the rock by ancient Afghan Buddhists?

But, of course, what really brought down the Taliban wasn't blowing up the Buddhas, but blowing up the Twin Towers... though there is an eerie sort of bizarro symmetry to the two crimes. Of course, the World Trade Center towers, symbols of capitalism though they were, also happened to have thousands of people in them at the time.

It is raining hard here in Los Angeles. I like hard rain. It's exciting. I think I'll go out and drive my mom's Subaru Impreza RS (which I convinced her to get). It loves weather like this. (Yes, I sound like an advertisement. I like Subarus because: they are quirky, semi-unknown, versatile, and fun).

November 24, 2001

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.

I suddenly heard Heather F.'s name on the radio and for a moment forgot that she had told me about it --- in fact she had asked my advice about it a couple of days before, while she was editing it --- but somehow the context of driving and listening to the radio, "official" media, seemed so different from the context of "real life" (and though much of my life online seems unreal, somehow my weblog associations seem quite real, almost more real than real) so I was still quite surprised to hear her name. Heather, I thought, did a great job reading her editing-down version of the piece, and yes, it wasn't as nuanced as the original, but still, there it was, on NPR. She's quite a writer and a very good reader as well --- I suppose that's what one would expect from a performance artist.

November 19, 2001

I watched a beautiful and impressive dance performance involving Susan's sister Lilian; she's a member of Winifred Harris' Between Lines modern dance group. Some of the pieces were truly arresting --- moving, haunting, evocative, and powerful. While watching, though, I have to say I ended up liking the pieces that were a little more abstract, with leotard-style costumes, a bit more than most of the pieces where the dancers were wearing dresses. I thought about why this was, and I realized that the problem with dresses is that they simultaneously make the dancers look more isolated from each other (they become clearly separated beings) and, oddly, it also become more difficult to see the particularity of the dancers. It occurred to me that the thing that always attracted me to dance was the fact that, in certain forms of modern dance in particular, the boundaries between individual dancers blurs somewhat, and one can see forms that transcend the individual. But at the same time, in those pieces it becomes easier to actually see very specific, particular details of the movement and style and form of the specific dancer who is in front of you. There seems to me something very powerful about the combination of specificity and interpenetration of being.

I am back in Los Angeles now for the next five weeks (with the exception of a week off to visit New York and many friends there in a couple of weeks). I grew up here. One thing I noticed for the first time --- maybe it's because I've been away for longer than usual (a few months, this time) --- the immensity of the empty spaces in the city. I have always thought of the area where I grew up as city --- yes, I always knew it was relatively sparsely populated compared to, say, Manhattan --- but still, a city. But this time I really noticed how vast the spaces are here. Driving down Western Avenue in my home town of Gardena, I realized how cheap and plentiful physical space is in this town... many gas stations have these inexplicable giant areas of asphalt which have no apparent function... whatsoever. They're just open space many times larger than anything that you could say could ever have any utility. Or the supermarket down the street, an Albertson's, which is gigantic --- yet not filled with produce, it is mostly filled with huge aisles, empty spaces, big open areas dotted with islands of oranges or breakfast cereal.

It occurred to me that this spaciousness is both liberating and somehow impersonal; liberating because you never really feel trapped or excluded here --- there is always someplace to escape to if you need to find your own corner of the city. Impersonal though, because it is hard to feel that these monstrously expanded versions of public spaces belong to or are run by human beings --- they must be owned by and managed by corporate entities far removed from the people supposedly running them --- or using them, as customers.

I realized that for Japanese, being crowded in makes one feel part of a community, even in a big city. Here in Gardena, the largest Japanese-American community on the mainland, there are a lot of very Japanese businesses, though most of them still have to succumb to the sprawling urban architecture of this city, and they aren't cozily crammed up against each other, but far-flung. And there are some Japanese superstores here, one in particular comes to mind: Marukai. It is a superstore indeed: they sell everything from groceries to airplane tickets to furniture to rice cookers... but when I go into that store, it doesn't feel impersonal in the least. Not only is the building made out of recycled materials, but it's the physical layout: everything is crammed in close together, it is bustling with people, even the parking lot leaves little room to maneuver. Yet it is not so crowded as to be oppressive --- everything is laid out just so, so there is just enough room to get around easily. It isn't claustrophobic, merely very efficient. Just like I like it. I guess that's why I also like Portland so much as a city: same idea.

November 17, 2001

First of all, I think it's absurd for the government to be crowing about how wrong all the criticism of their military strategy was... the fact is, our strategy was all wrong, and the recent gains by the Northern Alliance prove it. We held off for far too long bombing the front lines of the Taliban, causing needless additional civilian deaths and delaying the ability of the international community to rush in aid. The recent good news is simply proof that had we started to bomb the front lines earlier, we would likely have accelerated the progress of the war. The press was right to criticize, the government did respond to the criticism, and for the government to be gloating now is really absurd.

All the handwringing about the Northern Alliance, also, appears to be misdirected as well. With the exception perhaps of Dostum's forces in Mazar-e-Sharif, they appear to be a stabilizing force for the most part, making all of the right noises. It is natural that they are providing an interim governmental structure until a new coalition government can take over. Yes, they've had a bad record in the past, but I believe the experience of the last several years will serve as sufficient to keep them for the most part in line. The Northern Alliance appears to be, for the most part, the most organized and disciplined military force in Afghanistan. There is peace and joy in Kabul. What we need to be worrying about is not the Northern Alliance but the many petty warlords who are not yet in the Northern Alliance fold, who are trying to reassert their old fiefdoms. All of these comments from Western nations about the Northern Alliance --- before there is evidence they are going to oppress their own people --- is premature and patronizing. The reason the Afghans have suffered so much is not because they are incapable of running their own affairs, but because foreign nations, like Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, and ourselves, have chosen to meddle far too much in their internal affairs, supporting maniacs, religious zealots, and even the Taliban at first. Give them a chance to settle things themselves. We should advise them, help them, provide money and military assistance --- if requested --- but let them administer their own transition.

I am very worried about this executive order allowing for secret military tribunals to be convened at the sole discretion of the executive branch. This is not a right versus left wing affair: people like William Safire, Rep. Bob Barr, and conservative Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano have all come out blasting this order. Can we trust the government to use such powers judiciously? If we look at what happened to Wen Ho Lee, the revelations about the incredibly shoddy forensic work that has been done at the FBI crime lab, and so many other examples of government malfeasance, the answer is clearly no. The only thing that keeps a free society free is public scrutiny of the operations of our government. All of the many civil rights abuses, lies, coverups, and other government malfeasance would have simply increased and threatened our very freedoms had we not had public scrutiny of the operations of our government.

November 15, 2001

"We bought U.S.-made chalk ourselves," she said. "It was the best quality."

It is gratifying to see the smiles of the children in Kabul and elsewhere celebrating the overthrow of the brutal Taliban. However, I am still very worried about the future --- things do not seem even remotely settled. When you corner a dangerous animal, that's when it becomes the most dangerous. If the terrorists have nothing to lose, what's to stop them from unleashing everything they have against us?

I like this headline: Kabul Men Fling Off Trousers for Death-Free Soccer.

November 13 (b), 2001

"Everywhere people are digging up their television sets," [said] Mr. Asif.

The Supreme Court may, in fact, have decided the last presidential election after all. Apparently Judge Lewis was open to counting both overvotes AND undervotes, and he would have likely allowed overvotes had the recount proceeded. Of course, there might not have been enough time.

Though we've all almost forgotten Clinton now, it helps to read a speech like this, which he just gave at Georgetown, to see the huge intellectual gap between him and our current fearless leader.

First, we have to win the fight we are in and in that I urge you to keep three things in mind. First of all, terror, the killing of noncombatants for economic, political, or religious reasons, has a very long history, as long as organized combat itself, and yet it has never succeeded as a military strategy standing on its own. But it has been around a long time. Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless. Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple Mount, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees. I can tell you that that story is still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it. Here in the United States, we were founded as a nation that practiced slavery and slaves were, quite frequently, killed even though they were innocent. This country once looked the other way when significant numbers of Native Americans were dispossessed and killed to get their land or their mineral rights or because they were thought of as less than fully human and we are still paying the price today. Even in the 20th century in America people were terrorized or killed because of their race. And even today, though we have continued to walk, sometimes to stumble, in the right direction, we still have the occasional hate crime rooted in race, religion, or sexual orientation. So terror has a long history.
A true patriot admits his own culture's past crimes with candor.

November 13, 2001

My car got hit by a teenager who ran a red light and slammed into the front left of my car while I was proceeding through the intersection. I seem to have some cervical strain from the impact, which I'm treating with ibuprofen after doctors determined my neck was stable. The car was munged and now sits in the repair shop. It's funny, just like the last time, when I got hit from behind (at 65 mph with me at a dead stop), I didn't react either before or after the accident with any fear or horror, but instead just with a sense of puzzlement. "Hmm, what is that shape approaching me at that strange angle? Curious." I always seem to go into a semi-detached state; it feels sort of surreal. "This isn't the way cars are supposed to interact. They're supposed to avoid occupying the same space at the same time." That's my basic feeling.

The other driver was a teenager, his friends (two passengers) lived on the street (I discovered as I got their information for my insurance company), and luckily he at least has liability coverage. He was shaking as he sat in my car and we exchanged information. I patted him on the back. Though the accident was totally his fault, I felt no anger. Of course, if he tries to claim it wasn't his fault, that might change, only because it would lead to a lot of hassles from the insurance companies.

Psy Spy. It seems that it might be prudent to avoid major sporting events for a while.

The Afghan News Network provides a large number of links to different news sources about Afghanistan.

BBC reporting provides a different perspective.

November 10, 2001

Went to see the excruciatingly lovely Waking Life last night. Chatty like some of Linklater's other films, yet still a wonderful experience with many "holy moments" (see the film for elucidation). "The biggest mistake is thinking that you're alive, when you're just in the waiting room of life."

A simple idea: if you feel overwhelmed by all the stuff you need to do, consider this. Each day suppose N new things need to be done, on average. If you do N-1 of them each day, then after a year, you will have 365 things left undone. However, suppose you have 100 things to do in your pile. If each day you do N+1 things, then after three months, nothing will be left undone, and you'll have space and time to spare. In other words, it's not necessary to dig yourself out from the giant hole you're in all at once, all you need to do is take care of N+1 things each day instead of N-1. For some reason, we have evolved to think in terms of addition, but everyday life is actually a matter of multiplication. The difference between someone totally on top of things and someone hopelessly far behind is not a gigantic chasm; rather it's just a tiny difference: N+1 versus N-1.

November 9 (b), 2001

Via jill/txt, adnan.org, a weblog written by an Arab-American. If you're looking for alternative perspectives on the war, as well as just a good blog in general, check it out. He posts links representing a wide spectrum of views.

November 9, 2001

Poignant article written by a Israeli man who knew Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old Palestinian Israeli peace activist who was shot and killed by Israeli police in October of 2000. He was shot even though he was wearing the green T-shirt of the Seeds of Peace organization, of which he was a prominent, idealistic, young member. I have to admit that this article about that tragedy made me cry and cry:

One young officer, visibly uncomfortable, fidgeting nervously at the witness stand, admitted what was terribly clear from the testimony: "It didn't have to happen."


November 8 (b), 2001

Thanks to the people who have emailed me with respect to my note to myself a couple of weeks ago, i.e., "Communication is possible only because it is impossible. Every message exists only in the space of its context." Te-yi Lee writes the following, which echoes the sentiments of some other people who sent me their interpretations:

there is a disjunction between thoughts as they exist in our heads and as they come out of our mouths in the form of words. we try to communicate through such primary methods as talking and writing because we cannot know what is in each other's minds; communication of the thoughts as they really are is not possible. even now, i struggle to put into words this fuzzy idea that's in my head, and i find my words lacking. but it's all i have to try to communicate with you, so i try, and maybe taken in the context of what we're talking about (me addressing, through this frustrating message, your quote about communication) you can make some sense of what i'm saying. taken out of context, the words are just words, conveying nothing of what was meant by them. taken in context, maybe some meaning or understanding can be derived, even if it is not exactly the meaning that i meant or thought i meant.
I think this is indeed much of what I meant, though I feel there is something a little more, too. Why only because it is impossible? Te-yi Lee's message makes me think about it, and try to reconstruct what I meant... I think it has something to do with this: not only does context give meaning to messages, but there is no such thing as a message without context. If there were a universe devoid of any sentient life, then if somehow matter in that universe arranged itself into the forms of the letters and words in my weblog, for example, they would mean exactly nothing: they would convey no information whatsoever. The information is conveyed only because these words exist in the context not only of what I am saying here, but of civilization, the English language, life on Earth, life in the universe... even an alien who might discover these writings in the far future might be able to decipher some of it because of some homology between their ways of dealing with the conditions of life in this universe and our own (combined with archaeological excavations). But communication never involves the direct transmission of thoughts from one sentient being to another --- it always involves that mediating context, which is the field in which we are all raised in common on Earth. Yet of course, this context never provides for perfect reproduction ... but without context, there would never be any messages at all.

Of course, to speak of reproduction is to presume that even that might be possible... but I do not believe that we even are able to know precisely what we were thinking the moment before, or even what we are really thinking now. We just have traces. We are what we are doing, but we can never fully know what we are. So even a message to one's self can get misplaced, so to speak, and even if the above is close to "what I meant" it can't capture exactly what I was at that moment I made the note to myself.

November 8, 2001

Generalized immune system booster vaccine appears to protect against a wide range of biological threats, including anthrax and Ebola. It really does feel like we're living in the future, as I remarked a couple of days ago.

November 7, 2001

Some people are very detail-oriented, and have no difficulties creating intricately detailed things. Others are better at seeing a large sweep of things, and they know how to extrapolate from very few clues. I'm the latter sort of person; I know how to focus on what's really critical over the long term or the large scale, but I am not as good at making sure every single little detail is perfect --- I work on the most important details first, and leave the rest for later. This is both a blessing and a curse; I am a great strategist, not as good a tactician. This isn't so much because I am incapable of getting details down; I just don't have the same patience for detail as some of my friends; I want to work on the big picture first, and I find the process of polishing the corners to be less thrilling, although I can do it when I must. I think this is a matter of temperament.

Interestingly, I noticed this difference once while on a hiking trip in the Sierras with friends of mine. I and one of my best friends, Doug, who is fantastic at perfecting details, and is an extremely precise person in many ways, were both walking down a steep mountain path. Doug was walking deliberately, choosing each step carefully, while I was bounding down the mountain. Both of us were proceeding safely, however; I could tell where to walk by just glancing ahead of me --- I spied where the treacherous rocks or pits would be, and I simply avoided them. On the other hand, Doug is better than I am at creating intricate systems that require every piece to be crafted perfectly. Or with anything --- he always has such attention to detail --- whenever he cooked moderately complicated recipies, like squash soup from the Moosewood Cookbook, he would always make everything to such exacting standards that the result was invariably sublime.

November 6, 2001

In the ekpyrotic model, our universe is ... a three-dimensional membrane embedded in a five-dimensional surface. That "brane" ... is known as a boundary brane because it lies at one boundary of the fifth dimension. Another boundary brane lies some distance away, on the other side of the fifth dimension. ... A brane ... peels off the distant boundary brane and collides with the brane destined to become our universe. The energy imparted from this Big Crunch ignites the Big Bang and sets the stage for the formation of the galaxies seen in the universe today.
It's strange how science can sound like science fiction these days. (Ekpyrotic model is the newest cosmological alternative theory).

November 4, 2001

I love sleeping in now, but when I was a young child I used to hate to sleep. When I'd go to bed I'd hope to get through sleep as fast as possible. I got myself so worked up that a few times the miraculous happened: I'd blink, and suddenly it went from night to day. It literally felt as though no time at all had passed. I was elated when this happened; I'd jump out of bed thinking, "yes! I'm awake! It's as though the night didn't happen at all!" When we wake up there is some mechanism that restores our waking consciousness, sense of who we are, where we are, etc. But it seems that this mechanism can take such a perfect snapshot of our state of mind when we fall asleep that when we wake it is restored perfectly. Either that or I was abducted by aliens, or time travelled... What used to make me wonder, even when I was a child, was how I could have slept the whole night without appreciably moving. But maybe this "perfect reconstruction" could only happen if my body was in roughly the same position when I woke up --- otherwise my body position would clue me in that time must have passed...

The other odd thing about my sleep when I was a young child was that I often remembered my dreams throughout the night (when I didn't do the "blink from night to day" thing). Even in the middle of the night I'd be dreaming and reflecting on dreams that had occurred much earlier in the night. This was part of the reason I disliked going to bed: some of my dreams were nightmares, and I would remember them --- and I felt like while I was asleep, it took hours to get through the night, occasionally having to sit through recurring nightmares. After a while the nightmares seemed more boring than scary: I always knew what was going to happen next.

In a way, though, I am glad I had those recurring nightmares, because they would remind me that I was dreaming, so I had quite a few lucid dreaming experiences as a child. I'd even sometimes have conversations in my dreams with other dream children, telling them that they, too, were dreaming. When I was a kid I often wondered if those other children really were other kids dreaming at the same time, and we were actually meeting in the dream, or if they were just in my imagination.

I figured out that if I wanted to "change" the dream I was having and go onto some other dream, all I needed to do was "go to sleep" in my dream. Sometimes I'd convince some of the other kids in my dreams to do it, too, and we'd all lie down, right there, in the dream, and "go to sleep." Hey --- if you remember meeting some Japanese-American kid in your dreams when you were a kid, telling you that you were dreaming, and how to "change" your dream, email me. Around thirty years ago or so. That was me...

Our poor record at targeting is driving Afghan civilians into the arms of the Taliban. We have been wasting time by bombing the cities for far too long, and the Afghan population is turning against us as a result.

November 1, 2001

I had this funny dream just now. It started out about a young girl "genie" who was a smart nerd but secretly had all of these magical powers that she hid from the rest of the kids. At some point she meets up with this funny nerdy boy whom she greets really enthusiastically, and at first I'm not sure why. They decide to go play basketball in secret inside his parents' garage. Then it is revealed that he, too, is a genie, and he launches himself into the air and does a flying dunk of the basketball (using his magical powers). The girl also dunks the ball, and they both laugh about it.

Later in the dream, however, the scene shifts a bit. It turns out the boy has been tending a bunch of little tiny people he had created who live in the corner of the garage. They have their own little world but they're sadly ignorant of the real world. I am now in the dream and I'm over there talking with the little tiny people (they're about six inches tall) who know practically nothing about the outside. They have a small society of about nine or ten, they live in a house with a small "yard." At some point a bunch of these little people realize there is a big world out there and they want to plunge into it. They make a run for it and we rush after them --- not because we want to keep them imprisoned but because we want to protect them. They're too small to make it in the real world, we think. As we rush after them they're hidden in the tall grass (I'm afraid to step on them), but, strangely, I look up and, lo and behold, they're growing in size. By the time we reach the streetcorner they're full height! Oddly enough, one of them is being "played by" John Turturro (this dream is sort of a quasi-movie). I turn to the boy magician and we both shout with relief and wonder. He says "I wanted to make humans, and I noticed they would change size slightly as they moved around, but I had no idea that if they got this far away from their birthplace they'd grow to full size!" I speak to the John Turturro-guy and start explaining to him how to get around. At this point we're surrounded by people. I tell him, "green means go, red means stop," and he starts repeating this over and over. I try to explain the BART rapid transit system and the geography of the Bay Area (it turns out we are in Berkeley). I give him some cash (I only have twenty bucks on me).

Now that I write this out it seems perfectly clear that it is about raising children.

I love how CNN decides to put quotes around "humanitarian crisis" in this headline. Is it a matter of controversy that there is a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan? To acknowledge a humanitarian crisis might mean questioning the wisdom of sustained bombing with no pause to let in humanitarian aid, and the last thing we want is to question the wisdom of our military strategy. What we ought to be doing is focus on primarily military areas, heavily bombing the Taliban front lines which have many non-Afghan Arabs who have come in to impose the Taliban on the Afghan people. Why aren't we doing this? The ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, hates the Northern Alliance, and we, in our infinite ignorance, have relied too much on Pakistan and the ISI to take care of things in the region for us. What an absurd mistake that was, both in the past and certainly now. Our bombing campaign, had it been much more intense and much more targeted at Arab occupying forces, could have shocked the Taliban into defections and solidified popular resentment against the Taliban --- instead, we bombed in urban areas, which inevitably kills civilians by accident, causing the public to rally around the Taliban and meanwhile making no significant dent in the Taliban's military capabilities at the front, where it really matters. It makes sense to have done some initial bombing in urban areas, but we should have done it massively and then shifted to the front lines quickly. The campaign, meanwhile, is moving so slowly along the front lines that the people of Afghanistan gain confidence in the Taliban, and Taliban troops have no reason to defect. One can only hope we're finally wising up.

A poignant site dealing with the terrible plight of women in Afghanistan.


october (part 2)