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
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
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
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
Sometimes it rains electric in
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
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
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
(rather than one or the other being fundamental).
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:
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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, 0.com, 1.com, 2.com, etc. are already registered.
I tried some more numbers at random and discovered that 97.com is also taken,
as is 281.com, 8712.com, and 92543.com.
Strangely, however, I discovered that 4532.com is free, as is 129491.com (get 'em while they're hot!)
Other random domains that are taken: www.com,
embolism.com, and I tried a bunch of obscure words which turned
out to be used as well: occultation.com, greengage.com, quoit.com, embouchure.com, and
deliquesce.com. 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 net.net,
netnet.net, netnetnet.net, and so on, were all taken, up to net^7.net, com^7.com,
and org^3.org. So I went back and rechecked www.com and determined that wwww.com,
wwwww.com, wwwwww.com, and so forth, all
the way to w^11.com, are registered. But: w^12.com is ripe for the picking.
(demotic.com, 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
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
a review of Sensation for The Nation.
Heather Anne also talks about the exhibit
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
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
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
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
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.
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
can be up to 4.5 feet wide and over twenty feet high, and it also smells like carrion. As it happens,
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
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."
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.
From Zero Effect
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.