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October 31, 1999

California is considering a bigoted, anti-gay voter initiative, the Defense of Marriage Act, which would state that only marriages between men and women are considered valid, to prevent California from recognizing same-sex marriages that may be ruled valid in Vermont and elsewhere in the future. Although support for the initiative is weakening, it still has more supporters than opponents (50% to 41%, down from 57% to 39% two months ago). I can't express strongly enough how much this sort of measure angers me. Here's how you can donate to Californians For Fairness, the campaign to defeat this initiative.

October 30, 1999

Saw the intense and great Euro-African singing group Zap Mama tonight at the Aladdin Theatre. The show was riveting for every single second. Boredom was physically impossible. As Jen said, they gave the impression of being not of this Earth, somehow, yet playful and relaxed at the same time. It's a memorable experience to see them perform live.

Over a hundred in-depth reviews and thoughts on New York art exhibits.

October 27, 1999

Portlanders have an odd habit of walking in the rain without any rain gear. It's as though after years of acclimatization, they (I say "they" though I spend a lot of time here, I don't quite feel I can count myself as one of them yet) think that they have become natural creatures of water. A particularly proud Portlander can walk unprotected through light rain without flinching in the least, as though nothing were out of the ordinary. Of course, even this has its limits; when it really starts to come down, you get to see lots of these proud rain people hunched over and running, having left behind their umbrellas and raincoats, thinking they could handle the drizzle without artificial aid.

Sometimes it rains electric in Japan.

For all their beauty and power, Sweetarts do have a few limitations (link courtesy of Todd).

David sends me a pointer to some playful performance artists, the Blue Man Group. They've gotten some glowing reviews.

October 26, 1999

I recently saw an experimental film and video performance at the Hollywood Theatre, which I am pleased to note does carry my favorite movie theatre food accompaniment, Sweetarts (see September 21 entry). However, it felt somehow ironic (exactly why I can't say) to be eating them while watching experimental video. Sue asked me if they tasted better or worse that way; I thought about it, and I had to admit ironic Sweetarts don't taste quite as good as the sincere kind.

Only frivolous candy, you say? Think again. Sweetarts are not without their legal controversy and medical utility.

This evening I'm listening to Cibo Matto and Cat Power. People say Cibo Matto's first album was sweet but silly, but I think it was a lot more serious than it at first appears. Both of Cibo Matto's albums are rich musically and interesting lyrically. Cat Power is a solo project and musically minimalist; it feels coolly contemplative to me.

October 25, 1999

Emily has a secret museum.

Heather Anne insightfully observes today that the universe can be thought of as a giant conduit for information. Yes! I think this is a very valuable way of looking at things. Back at one of the PhysComp conferences I recall a paper about an imaginary one-dimensional universe in which it turned out the most efficient way to transmit information was a wave that observed the quantum mechanical Schrödinger equation: in other words, working backwards from basic assumptions about information you are able to get something out that looks a lot like ... physics.

One way to avoid the problem of reductionism would be to say that the information-centric and physical-centric way of looking at the universe are complementary viewpoints (rather than one or the other being fundamental).

Nigel Thomas and I have begun an informal correspondence (scroll down to the thread beginning 24-Oct-1999; Nigel emailed me that he would continue the conversation in a few days, as he wants to take his time to compose a careful answer and he is busy at the moment) on the subject of mental imagery, in particular whether or not some form of sensory-like internal imagery is necessary for conscious thought. This was inspired by the conversation he had with Patrick Hayes which I referred to in my last entry, below.

David sends me this very interesting link about a sign language invented pretty much ex nihilo by children in Nicaragua (unlike Esperanto [via Memepool via Bifurcated Rivets], this language was evolved by children rather than constructed by adults); although I don't think this verifies Chomsky's thesis that language is hard-wired. I believe the reason for the similarity of deep structure in language has to do with the computational properties of the problem, i.e., I do not think it is contradictory to believe that language is both emergent and that every language will emerge with essentially the same deep structure. (An example of parallel computational evolution: an artifical neural network trained to conjugate verbs made the same mistakes and corrected them in the same order as human children do, despite the radically different physical architecture --- this suggests that the problem of verb conjugation has a certain computational structure which tends to generate this sort of pattern. Of course verb conjugation is not language deep structure, but this example is nevertheless suggestive.)

October 23, 1999

Went to a pumpkin carving party tonight, then to the Portland premiere of Miranda July's new film, Nest of Tens (see October 5 entry).

Apropos of yesterday's discussion on the context dependency of information, here's a message:

1001101101011110101010010010101011001011 0100101001010110101110110001010110010110

What does it mean? Is it information, or not?

When I was younger, I asked myself the question: "Why do we overlay words on our thoughts?" I decided to do a subjective experiment on myself: could I think without words? The answer, I found, was yes; I was able to turn off my inner narrator and think without language. However, the first few times I tried this, I had difficulty remembering what I had been thinking about--- it required a specific effort to remember.

Now, I rarely use words when I think. In fact, words only seem to come when I start to write or speak.

Interestingly, people who suffer from a type of temporary total aphasia (in which one is incapable of either understanding or using language) have often reported that they did not feel any difficulty in thinking during their aphasic episodes. I recall reading about one writer who discussed how, when his aphasia first struck, he found himself perfectly capable of going over in point-by-point detail intricate philosophical arguments he had once read.

Patrick Hayes and Nigel Thomas debate the issue of thinking without language and the meaning of mental images. Hayes suffers from periodic bouts of aphasia during which he finds his cognitive faculties apparently unimpaired. He claims to also think without words most of the time; but he does use what he calls mental images, which are not necessarily visual.

October 22, 1999

Heather Anne asks the loaded question (October 21 entry): What is information? This question has also fascinated me for years. It's more than "true" statements or propositions. Although Shannon's information theory provides the now-classical definition used to build the Internet (he did consider truth to be just an accidental property of a message, not fundamental), a monumental advance in the understanding of information from a mathematics / physics / thermodynamics / engineering perspective, it is only one view of the question. Shannon's definition presumes that information can be decomposed into bits; that messages can be unambiguously conveyed by answering yes or no questions. But how can you express or quantify the experience (not just the visual representation) of a work of art or a beautiful timeless moment?

Gregory Bateson defined information as "a difference which makes a difference"; he made the point that we can only perceive differences; for example a spatial contrast between dark and light, or changes in a system in time. For Bateson, information consists of differences that propagate around a system that contains circular chains of causation; the significance of a difference is dependent on the structure of the entire system (including its environment). Within this framework one could think of communication as a non-local resonance phenomenon. (Bateson's work can be of great value to anyone interested in the nature of mind.)

I also totally agree with Heather Anne that information is conveyed not just through text and charts and graphs which illustrate propositions about the world (whether true or not), but also via poetic and fictional and visual and other means, and it can be ambiguous and heavily context-dependent (in fact, I would argue that all information is context-dependent in some sense).

Felix Stalder of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto begins to develop a theory of information ecology in cyberspace.

Speaking of context, I was eating today at the pizza place down the block; they also show local artwork. Today they had four solid flat color cardboard panels thumbtacked to the wall; the red one was called Crying Clown, the blue one something like Blue Bells, the black one East Wall Vortex, etc. They were selling for $60 unframed, $120 framed. I thought, "this is kinda old"; cardboard copies of Alexander Rodchenko's Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, and Pure Blue Color, or Ad Reinhardt's Black Painting. But then I thought, this just goes to show the power of context; these cardboard rectangles felt a lot different from Malevich's White Square on White or Robert Ryman's Unfinished Painting; even though they look similar, this is more lighthearted, just postmodern cardboard humor in a pizza shop. But even though I got a little enjoyment from that observation, I am still not forking over $60 for one.

October 20, 1999

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.

It seems the Encyclopedia Britannica could have used a bit more preparation.

Saw a toaster at Target today (or, as Lilian calls it, "Targét", with a French accent), which reminded me that my friend Martin really hates the architecture of Michael Graves, in particular the Portland Building. He could rant on about it quite persuasively for quite some time (and a Martin rant can be a theatrical experience, let me tell you). Another friend, Kim, however, enjoys Graves' kitchenware designs which are available at Targét, and which remind me (in a good way) of the doo-dads attached to the Portland Building if they were shrunk down and used to store utensils and boil water. Perhaps Martin would like Graves' work better at that scale.

Somehow I missed NQPAOFU's Jouke K. returning from vacation; kept thinking he was still away. Glad he's back. Lots of good stuff as usual. His remark about Amazon micropayments prompts me to announce for the record (in case anyone cares) that I am not a member of Amazon's affiliate program. I actually thought about it a couple of weeks ago but decided against it. I have nothing against making money on the Internet, but it doesn't seem appropriate for a weblog (or "web opera" as Paul P. might say) --- not that I could make any money via Amazon anyway. I also considered linking to Powell's instead (October 12 entry), but they don't have the user reviews which I always find so amusing on Amazon.

October 19, 1999

Yesterday, while I was idly fiddling with the registration form at Network Solutions I verified that, as expected,,,, etc. are already registered. I tried some more numbers at random and discovered that is also taken, as is,, and Strangely, however, I discovered that is free, as is (get 'em while they're hot!) Other random domains that are taken:,, and, and I tried a bunch of obscure words which turned out to be used as well:,,,, and Sorry if you had your heart set on any of those.

Via Alamut, discovered a very interesting site, Geegaw, who seems to have found out about my site before I found out about hers. I need to follow Paul's example and check my referrer logs more often. (She characterizes my weblog as a curious mix of highbrow and lowbrow, and I agree, though I take issue with her implication that Frank Zappa is the latter; I doubt there are too many lowbrows whose favorite composer was Edgard Varèse and who spent most of their time writing and listening to twentieth-century classical music.) I noticed that last week Geegaw also recorded on her site the results of her own Network Solutions search (I swear this is a coincidence). She found,,, and so on, were all taken, up to net^, com^, and org^ So I went back and rechecked and determined that,,, and so forth, all the way to w^, are registered. But: w^ is ripe for the picking. (, however, is gone).

"The next trend," I suggested to Susan a couple of months ago, "is sincerity," but I didn't have Jedediah Purdy and his juvenile overreaction to "irony incarnate" in the form of shows like Seinfeld in mind when I said that. From a post-postmodern point of view there is a place for something that one could call earnestness, but even so, you can't (really) go back.

On a more serious note (speaking of sincerity), I want to reply to Geegaw's criticism of my posting of attacks on Alan Sokal and his hoax. She correctly points out that the editors of Social Text failed to review Sokal's article before it went to print. However, no one is trying to defend the actions of the Social Text editors, who were obviously sloppy in the extreme. The point, however, is that Sokal and others are drawing unjustifiably broad conclusions from flimsy evidence and imprecise critical thinking.

I really couldn't care less about Social Text or even the industry of poststructural journals out there; for all I know many of them do contain gibberish. However, it is very clear (to me, at least) that the basic points being made by the European poststructuralists are sound and cannot be dismissed so easily. Two former stars of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, in their later careers repudiated their analytic origins and embraced a much more postmodern position, using arguments which cannot be quickly dispensed with and are far from being meaningless gibberish. On the other hand, in order to understand these arguments properly, one must approach them with great care and meticulous precision; Sokal's prank and trivial nitpicking is too sloppy. Social Text and other journals may have problematic writing in them, but Alan Sokal's shenanigans are imprecise (and thus he is guilty of the same mistake he accuses his targets of committing: careless reasoning).

October 18, 1999

Via Metascene: the venerable Arthur Danto writes a review of Sensation for The Nation. Heather Anne also talks about the exhibit on her site (October 18 entry). I want to visit NYC soon. Maybe it will happen.

Had a conversation with Jen about all the unhappy academics we knew, and we talked about why it is difficult to be both an intellectual and happy at the same time. It is difficult to have faith because the easy forms of faith involve some kind of metaphysical belief, and they are thus very difficult for an intellectual to accept. Happiness does not have to depend on a metaphysical belief, of course, but the alternative (resting one's faith in emptiness) is extremely subtle and difficult and inexpressible (but, somehow, possible, from one point of view, though also impossible, from another).

October 17, 1999

Physicist Julian Barbour argues that time is an illusion in the October issue of New Scientist. David found a copy of this article here on Eurekalert.

Saw American Beauty this weekend. It was a beautiful film with excellent performances all around. However, something bothered me about it: the ending struck me as unfinished --- he has an epiphany finally, but doesn't have to deal with living ordinary life with his enlightenment --- this is the easy way out. (Susan remarked, however, that this is a device that Flannery O'Connor is fond of using, and I am a fan of O'Connor.) The characters and their problems were oversimplified caricatures. However, I forgave the writer this because of the encounter with the plastic bag, the real American Beauty; in an interview the screenwriter, Alan Ball, claims he based this on an actual encounter he had (sans camera). To me, the rest of the film was secondary material swirling around the plastic bag at its heart. However, it turns out Nathaniel Dorsky made an experimental film last year with precisely the same scene in it; this is either an incredible coincidence or... Ball ripped off Dorsky. If the latter, of course, the whole film becomes a sham in a way; or more precisely, a perfect simulacrum, since the only real thing in the film was the plastic bag -- but even that may turn out to be a copy.

The largest single flower in the world can get to be three feet wide, and they smell like rotting carrion (botanists have recently discovered their seeds are spread by blue flies attracted to rotting carcass smell). The largest flower cluster in the world, the Amorphophallus titanium, can be up to 4.5 feet wide and over twenty feet high, and it also smells like carrion. As it happens, everybody seems to be talking about sending scents digitally over the Internet; an obvious use would be for Web pages about flowers. Reproducing the Rafflesia aroma would be rather educational... which brings up a drawback of these things: you might become hesistant to click on links as there's no "back" button for smells.

This weekend I've also been playing with Real Jukebox, a CD ripper/music filing system from Real Networks. Organized twenty-five of my CDs by compressing them to my hard drive, so I can easily access all the tracks. It takes only about ten to fifteen minutes to record a disc on my 333MHz PII. I use 64kbps G2 which sounds remarkably good, plenty for casual listening, and it takes half the space of a standard MP3 file.

October 15, 1999

"There aren't good guys and bad guys; there are just ... guys."

From Zero Effect

I find it strange that many people seem to like to attach qualities to people, i.e., they find a person to be good or bad intrinsically, as though there were some goodness substance (like phlogiston?) or some evil goo that gets smeared all over someone and can never come off, or even worse, that somehow people are infused with this stuff, composed of it in some way. "Is he a good person?" someone might ask. Sometimes people attach qualities to ideas and words as well; they think an idea can be assigned a quality of rightness or wrongness, a truth value of some kind. Yet it makes much more sense to think of propositions as varying in applicability depending on context, usage, etc.

Which reminds me of a Zen story: a group of monks were having arguments over the best way to run their monastery. The disputes became increasingly heated, until finally the abbot wrote the following and posted it on his door: "Those who argue about right and wrong are the very ones who are right and wrong." The monks, seeing this, were mollified, and they then settled their disputes quickly and quietly.


early october