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October 14, 1999

Reading Paul Perry's comments on Alamut today about artist follow-through stirred up a variety of thoughts and emotions in me. I've spent a lot of my life teetering between the technical and the artistic; though I studied physics in college and spent a lot of time doing object-oriented software architecture afterward, most of the projects I have worked on have had a strong artistic or design element. In college, most of my friends were artists, writers, or musicians; I hardly knew anyone in the physics or math departments (aside from close friends at other schools who had much broader interests than most of the physics and math majors at my school). I still find myself surrounded by artists and writers today, and I realized recently that I spend most of my free time thinking about art and artistic problems.

But there is a virtue to being immersed in the technical from time to time; it is all about follow-through; or at least about implementation. It's not just engineering; you have to consider organizational architecture, how to deal with politics and change and crisis, how to mitigate risk, and how to keep people happy and motivated. These may seem prosaic, dull subjects, but they are unavoidable things one must wade through to get to ship.

For a while I thought that perhaps I was an engineer who liked to facilitate art, but recently I've realized that I'm more of an artist who happens to be good at engineering (in some ways too good for my own good). It's time for me to balance the two worlds more effectively: this is an architectural problem, to use the term that I think best describes where I find myself now (and where, in retrospect, I realize I have always been).

October 13, 1999

To round out my set of quotes on time, David reminded me of this:

"Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

-Groucho Marx

Rimsky Korsakoffee House in Portland, Oregon, is an exceptional and unique cafe that specializes in desserts; they serve literally the best cheesecake in the world, as far as I can tell. Even after hearing me hype their cheesecake none of the folks I've taken there have yet been disappointed. Before she visited Rimsky's, Tammy had told me that she loved cheesecake, or (she clarified) the idea of cheesecake, but she was so particular that she had not yet had a single slice which she had actually liked, because they all had fallen short of her imagined ideal. However, even she told me after her first bite that not only did she like it, but that it was, in fact: "the perfect cheesecake."

But Rimsky's is much more than superb desserts; it is an experience, a world unto itself with a sign in the hallway that reads "Under No Management" and a few mysterious tables that surprise you when they turn out not to be quite what they appear to be (new patrons who sit at these tables usually notice this only near the end of their meals).

Rimsky's recently self-published a volume of stories and anecdotes about the cafe called The Rimsky Chronicles, filled with lore written by staff and customers. Unfortunately, it is not listed on Amazon, but in any case, it is best to come visit Portland and Rimsky's and experience the place first hand (several times), before reading of its many secrets in the Chronicles (which is available at the cafe).

A tasty morsel from a true story to whet your appetite:

"He choked as he heard his wife's shriek. He tried to jump up, but the table seemed to be gripping him, holding him down. One or two customers casually glanced his way and quietly laughed, but nobody else seemed to be paying any attention. Ann reassuringly placed her hand on his arm. 'Just wait,' she said."

From The Rimsky Chronicles

October 12, 1999

I am happy to note that Lindsay Marshall linked here from Bifurcated Rivets. Belatedly I note that Peterme was nice enough to mention me last month.

As I often do when I am in Portland, just for amusement I spent some time this evening roaming the halls of Powell's Books. Powell's is larger than a Portland city block in size, and with over a million titles in stock, it is the largest (non-virtual) bookstore in the world (and they are expanding); they also have a successful, growing web site, as well as a huge technical bookstore. They shelve used and new titles together, a unique and wonderful feature. You might notice that many used titles you find on Amazon come from Powell's. Ironically, Powell's dwarfs the Borders which ekes out its existence several blocks away.

Came across the following while browsing through the shelves at Powell's:

"We really know time, says Heidegger, because we know we are going to die. Without this passionate realization of our mortality, time would simply be a movement of the clock that we watch passively, calculating its advance --- a movement devoid of human meaning. Man is not, strictly speaking, in time as a body is immersed in a river that rushes by. Rather, time is in him; his existence is temporal through and through, from the inside out. His moods, his care and concerns --- his anxiety, guilt, and conscience --- all are saturated with time. Everything that makes up human existence has to be understood in the light of man's temporality: of the not-yet, the here-and-now."

-William Barrett

Which reminded me, somehow, of the following, which also happened to be on my mind this morning:
"Dogen-zenji said, 'Time goes from present to past.' This is absurd, but in our practice sometimes it is true. Instead of time progressing from past to present, it goes backwards from present to past."

From Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

October 11, 1999

Today I had a dream that I was unconsciously carrying out secret conversations with friends via hidden weblog pages (that is, hidden from my conscious mind). I stumbled upon these interactions while searching my hard drive.

David sent me a link to a new search engine, Oingo, which indexes words by "semantic distance"; that is, they attempt to group search results by the context in which the search terms appear. I tried typing in "decay" and got results in groups ranging from growth and sprawl (i.e., urban decay) to dental hygiene (tooth decay) to nuclear physics (particle decay). You can further refine your search by selecting a narrower semantic context for each word.

Vicki Rosenzweig suggests Paul Bunyan be added to the Kansas state science curriculum.

New Miranda July interview (see October 5 entry).

October 9, 1999

Fashion show for wearable computers.

I was thinking today about this irony: while we can now speak of living in a post age, some have noted that philosophy in the semi-mythical East, at least as practiced and understood by some in the elites (or by hermits), in premodern times was rather postmodern, and it was only with Westernization over the last century or so that this philosophical outlook has been overshadowed there by what we could call the classical modern view.

However, it occurred to me that postmodernism here tends to have more of a flavor of anything goes, whereas Eastern premodern thought is often stylistically drawn to signs of the unreality of conventional notions of time as well as the emptiness inherent in all forms. A downside of the Eastern style is the fact that it tended to get stuck in somewhat static formal traditions; you might say they became trapped by emptiness in some ways (even though they noted this as a potential pitfall and fallacy), whereas I think the recent fashionable criticism of poststructuralism here is that we may have become too enamored of our own sense of irony and formlessness. I tend to think there is some merit to both criticisms.

New Europe 99 performing arts festival (in New York).

October 7, 1999

Today I saw a strip club shaped like a giant jug (as in a bottle); Emily asked me to drive her out there to take pictures of it for Lily (long story, there is a book project involved. All very highbrow. Must there always be a highbrow reason to visit a strip club?)

I wondered... why a giant jug? Is it supposed to symbolize the product being served inside (moonshine... or?), like the giant donut atop Randy's Donuts in my home metropolis of Los Angeles (this always seemed sooo inviting when I was a kid riding by it in the car), or the man with the big light bulb over his head gracing the roof of The Light Bulb Shop in Austin? We didn't go inside, so I am left with only my imagination.

As it happens, I don't think I ever have actually eaten a donut from Randy's Donuts, either, so I suppose I only have my imagination to use in that case as well. Maybe I am better off not knowing. But I still think next time I am in Inglewood I will drop by and have a donut. It's good to take a calculated risk from time to time. I guess I think it's better to discover these things, whichever way they turn out.

October 6, 1999

I've heard some exciting news on the quantum computing front (see end of entry).

Background: if practical quantum computers could be built, it would have immense implications; they would be able to do certain computations at incredible speeds. They are most famous for being able to break "strong" encryption algorithms that depend on integer factoring being difficult (the basis of all public key encryption systems, i.e. E-commerce relies on this). They could also potentially compute many other very hard problems (such as the folding structure of a protein; of great importance to biotechnology).

To get a sense for how powerful these things could be: the largest supercomputer on Earth would be unable to simulate a quantum computer that dealt with only 40 qubits of information (a qubit is a quantum bit). An 86-qubit computer would exceed the capacity of a computer built from all of the matter in all of the world's oceans. A code that would take a classical computer hundreds of millions of years to break could potentially be broken by a quantum computer in seconds.

However, a quantum computer has to overcome decoherence. Decoherence is the tendency for quantum systems to couple with their environment and lose the superposition needed to do quantum computation. Theorists have come up with quantum error correcting codes to reduce this problem, but what has me excited today is an impressive new paper on using decoherence-free subspaces to do fault-tolerant universal quantum computing by Daniel Lidar and others. This paper, published on September 17 (just three weeks ago), outlines a method by which quantum computations can be done in mathematical "subspaces" that are shielded from most of the effects of decoherence. This scheme can produce efficient and stable universal quantum computing with much more relaxed tolerances than previously theorized schemes.

The upshot is: quantum computers may be far more practical than heretofore imagined.

Dilbert's quantum computer.

October 5, 1999

Miranda July is a phenomenon, an underground superstar, a multimedia performance artist, an actress, filmmaker, writer, the founder of a women's video distribution chain letter (Big Miss Moviola), and the author of several CDs. I've seen her perform a few times live here in her home town of Portland, and I have one of her videos; her work is intense, funny, direct, poignant, cryptic, impossible to describe, light, and deep at the same time. Here's a current schedule of appearances. If you happen to live anywhere near any of these events, I highly recommend being there. It's an indescribable experience and well worth your spacetime. Her brand new film, Nest of Tens, will be shown later this month in Olympia (WA), Portland, and Los Angeles, and she will be performing her multimedia piece Love Diamond in New York next March at The Kitchen (and, late breaking news, in the Bay Area at a to-be-chosen venue sometime in the next few months, check her site or here for updates).

A review of her Binet-Simon Test CD.

Rudolph Giuliani seems to be going off the deep end in more and more flamboyant ways with each passing month. You know what I mean, I won't even bother to link to this story, which seems to have been plastered everywhere for the last two days.

October 4, 1999

Back from adventures in the Bay Area. On the way back, visited the environmentally incorrect Drive-Thru Tree, a relatively famous and somewhat bizarre attraction (one of several analogous private operations in the region). The tree is 2,400 years old. Oddly enough, next to the tree is a poem which goes to great pains to talk about the divine origins of the redwood grove, the fact that it has stood through "fifty centuries of kings" and how it is a testament to God's greatness. Good thing for them the tree isn't 7,000 years old, as it would then pose a bit of a theological crisis for them, being older than their idea of the age of the Universe...

Alan Sokal stirred up a silly brouhaha in 1996 when he managed to bamboozle the editors of Social Text into publishing his article using jargon from modern theoretical physics ostensibly to support postmodern analysis of science and culture. He later announced the article a hoax, a meaningless fabrication. Naturally, those who find themselves addled and confused by poststructural thought seized upon this incident as proof of the vacuousness of the Continental influence on philosophy and cultural criticism. M. Beller of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, IL, points out (summarized here in Science News) in the September 1998 Physics Today that the founders of quantum physics, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and others also wrote at length on their notions of the philosophical implications of quantum physics (I myself read and was much impressed with Heisenberg in my tender youth as a physics major who was really more interested in philosophy but intolerant of the confused analytic philosophy which sadly prevailed at the time). These physicists discussed many quite radical notions which, unlike in Sokal's case, they took very seriously, and these writings are treated with much more respect by most physicists, even though they are sometimes as difficult to understand as any postmodern text (to the point that an article by Bohr was published with its page order mixed up in both the hardcover and softcover editions, an error apparently rarely noticed.)

Another critique of Alan Sokal by Jon K. Adams.

An account of a debate between Sokal and Latour by Steve Fuller, who characterizes Latour as a supporter of constructivism and a critic of relativism (as simple-mindedly construed). Fuller credits Latour with winning the debate "on points."

A constructivist view of scientific pretentiousness.

October 1, 1999

Today I found myself thinking about this: what if there were a prison in which the inmates were free to leave at any time, but they didn't realize it? The doors were all unlocked, but none of them ever tried to go?

Or suppose there were a sort of non-prison in which the inmates were actually already free and outside any prison walls, but they were for some inexplicable reason convinced they were all incarcerated, and lived their lives accordingly?

Or further, what if the inmates of such a non-prison not only lived their lives as if they were imprisoned, but they thought the limits of their non-prison were, in fact, all there was to freedom. So they would not only be unaware that they were already free, they would be unaware of even the possibility of freedom. If some would-be rescuer came along trying to enlighten them about their self-imposed bondage, they would dismiss that person as a lunatic.

However. A few might actually believe the rumors of a story told by a madman, and thus decide they were indeed trapped in a prison they couldn't see. However, not getting the point that they were already free, they would spend the rest of their lives in a futile search for the nonexistent hidden exit door.

Which reminds me of the time when, during my freshman year in college, my classmate Andre staged a production of No Exit in his freshman dorm suite. He didn't advertise the fact that he was doing it in the original French, leaving many audience members trapped in a small dorm suite for hours of incomprehension. My high school French was barely good enough to get the gist of what was happening, but I decided afterwards to go to the library to read the play in English. It was late. They turned out the lights, but I stayed ten more minutes and finished, what the hell, I thought. I went downstairs. All dark. Nobody anywhere. All doors locked. The large white lettering on the glass entrance doors shouted at me with a new, ironic, significance: "NO EXIT NO EXIT NO EXIT." Thankfully, security was lax, since after some searching, I managed to find a wide open service entrance in the back of the basement. Luckily for me, there was an exit door to find. Or was there?

No Exit.