synthetic zero


September 30, 2006

Spent a lovely day on Fire Island, which is easier to get to than I had assumed. It's great to go now, after the high season but when it's still warm enough to loll about on the beach; walking a couple of miles from the ferry, there were hardly any other people there.

My astute friend Caroline points out that one possible reason why higher IQ women might be getting married at much lower rates than lower-IQ women is simply that they might not want to get married. This is similar to a hypothesis Ann Althouse put forward. Of course, this is possible -- but the numbers are rather stark -- in the study in question, male likelihood to get married increases by 36 percent for every 16 points of IQ, and female likelihood decreases by 40 percent for every 16 points. I can certainly understand why higher-IQ women might find the institution of marriage both less desirable and less necessary, but why would higher-IQ men be more likely to want to marry? I suppose the only way to settle this would have been for the study to have also examined intent (i.e., asking people about their views on the desirability of marriage). It seems to me that if the study isn't flawed in some other way, it would be difficult to explain the rather stark numbers simply by a difference in desire to get married. However --- I hope that this situation isn't as dire as the numbers suggest.

September 29, 2006 (part b)

Bush may well have been able to get bin Laden before 9/11 according to Woodward's new book, "State of Denial":

The CIA'S top counterterrorism officials felt they could have killed Osama Bin Laden in the months before 9/11, but got the "brushoff" when they went to the Bush White House seeking the money and authorization.

CIA Director George Tenet and his counterterrorism head Cofer Black sought an urgent meeting with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on July 10, 2001, writes Bob Woodward in his new book "State of Denial."

They went over top-secret intelligence pointing to an impending attack and "sounded the loudest warning" to the White House of a likely attack on the U.S. by Bin Laden.

Woodward writes that Rice was polite, but, "They felt the brushoff."

Tenet and Black were both frustrated.

Black later calculated that all he needed was $500 million of covert action funds and reasonable authorization from President Bush to go kill Bin Laden and "he might be able to bring Bin Laden's head back in a box," Woodward writes.

Black claims the CIA had about "100 sources and subsources" in Afghanistan who could have helped carry out the hit.

The details of the incident are emerging just days after Sen. Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton sparred with Rice over whether the Bush administration had tried to get Bin Laden before the terror attacks.


September 29, 2006

Time seems to be a given: it's just there, flowing along. But to me, time is a construct; this it seems to me is obvious, even from a purely intellectual point of view. It is possible, however, to experience this directly; my subjective experience is not of a fixed external world filled with things and events carried along inexorably by a river of time ... instead, I experience time as being far less structured, in which the past and future and present are not as cleanly separated and delineated as they appear --- where the simple flow of past through present to the future is somewhat questionable. I feel this, and it is source of great comfort even as it seems to question the orderliness of clock time.

September 28, 2006

This is the worst thing our government has done in pretty much ever. I have absolutely no respect for John McCain at this point, who has caved to the Bush Administration and voted against the provision reestablishing the Great Writ of Habeas Corpus. The fundamental right of a prisoner to challenge the legality of their imprisonment is ... it's just ludicrous that anyone even has to utter a breath to have to defend habeas corpus. It's so fundamental to what it means to be a democratic republic, it's breathtaking to think that 51 senators could vote against it. I am left speechless.

September 27, 2006

I have long found this study showing that the higher the IQ of the woman, the lower their chances of marrying (and vice-versa for men) to be rather puzzling. It seems to me to be a particularly strange deficit in the makeup of men who apparently prefer stupider women ... it seems odd from an evolutionary biology standpoint: surely this would hurt your chances of producing intelligent offspring (and from a subjective standpoint: wouldn't it make your life a whole lot more boring?) Clearly, however, this bizarre characteristic is not universal among men --- for me, and I think many of the men in my family, intelligence is perhaps one of the most highly prized characteristics to look for in a potential mate. Ever since I was a child I had crushes nearly exclusively on smart girls --- the smarter the better. Sure, other things counted, too (physical attractiveness, personality, creativity, etc.) but high intelligence was not only a necessary quality --- it was perhaps the single most attractive quality (though, for me, intelligence is more than just smarts --- it's also breadth of mind, the ability to see and experience vastness both conceptually and non-conceptually).

September 26, 2006

Some images I took while wandering around the Montréal Underground City:


September 25, 2006

It's very strange how many people constantly misunderstand postmodernism, engaging in absurd straw-man attacks on it --- mischaracterizing it as a totalizing philosophy of radical relativism, in which all value and meaning is considered completely arbitrary. Most postmodern writing is actually a very measured critique of absolute meaning --- the notion that meaning is constructed is apparently very threatening to people, who seem to think that the lack of absolutes translates into total arbitrariness and randomness. The fact that meaning is not and cannot be absolute doesn't mean that meaning and value are entirely arbitrary --- far from it. Meaning and value have a wide range, they are socially constructed, but they are still related to the physicality of our being (in some sense, meaning and physicality sort of co-create each other, but that's another story --- the point is that meaning and value are not entirely unconstrained). It is not the case that all value schemes are equal --- one can meaningfully suggest that there are ways to compare them --- it's just that there is no single absolute basis for making these comparisons.

September 24, 2006

Saw a guy tossing trash out the window of his car today ... I mentioned to Sue that, quite clearly, they must never have seen the Crying Indian commercial... Cheesy as it is, it made a big impression on me as a kid. Even the thought of throwing trash on the ground makes me think of the crying Indian...

September 23, 2006

Tried to go to the beach today, but New York somehow intervened, and instead ended up doing laundry and going to see the latest, and last, Jet Li flick. Cheesy and silly at first, but it was great to see a little samurai sensibility inserted at the end in the form of some poignant Sino-Japanese interactions. Sometimes it is better to be willing to lose.

September 22, 2006

I've been working at home for a few days, which has enabled me to get a lot of work done that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to accomplish. Sometimes I need a relatively uninterrupted block of time (by "relatively" I mean --- it's not problematic for me to have a few breaks, especially if they're merely personal conversations or just answering easy questions from coworkers... but having to engage in intense meetings or otherwise having engagements which absolutely require full "work" attention --- this tends to interrupt my flow.) I need blocks of continuous time at least a few hours in length, preferably longer, to put things in order, set up my environment and my mind, and slowly build up the conceptual structures internally --- especially when the work is particularly complex, I need to hold many details of a system in my mental space, which takes time to bring into focus. With time it can form into a crystalline structure which I can manipulate, grow, alter, test, and, finally, turn into something concrete.

Interestingly, as I do this ... the work that I produce seems almost to be something that appears, as though by magic, in front of me, and I'm often surprised at what comes out, how intricate it sometimes seems, and I sometimes admire it as though someone else had done it. But in a way, it's true --- it really wasn't "me" that did it --- since the "me" doesn't really exist, it doesn't really "do" things, so it's wrong to give it credit. Instead, it's the work created by a bunch of processes and systems that are kind of roughly in the region of what I might call "me" --- but that's about it --- I don't own those things, per se, I don't even control them fully (and neither does anyone really ultimately "control" the fragments of being that they associate with themselves. We live with and through these fragments of being, we are them, and much more, but we can't identify the "me" with them -- in fact, we can't really identify the "me" fully with anything at all, but that's another topic...)

One thing that I have to say that's different, though, about my current work, is that in many of my previous working situations, I much preferred working at home to going into the office, and I would often arrange my schedule so that I could maximize the amount of time I spent at home. At this job, however, I not only have to spend more time in the office, but I actually really look forward to my time there. Ironically, for this job, my time at home has become more of an exercise in self-disciplined isolation --- fruitful, however.

September 21, 2006

It seems that there's nothing quite as attractive as desire, quietly expressed. But desire expressed insistently can lose its appeal. A fine line.

September 20, 2006

Sometimes while I am working late at night I have a movie on in the background; tonight it's the rather remarkable The Machinist, a strange and very well-made psychological tale; I start to wonder if I were becoming delusional, if I would have enough presence of mind to be able to deduce that it's not the world that's against me, it's my own mind. But that's the sad thing about delusions; they impair the very faculties that would ordinarily enable one to notice something wrong in one's own thoughts. Still --- I would have to hope that I could leverage the fragments of my own capacity to determine that there is something wrong with the remaining fragments, rather than just letting myself be swept along by it.

But in a way, everyday life is already a sort of delusion --- perhaps more orderly but for that very reason all that much more convincing.

September 19, 2006

Feel out of sorts again today: why?

September 18, 2006

I visited a "retirement community" recently, because we're checking it out to see if it might be appropriate for Sue and Lilian's mother --- it was very pleasant, I suppose, as retirement communities go. The people who lived there seemed to be happy. There were ping pong matches going on, mahjongg tables, a swimming pool, and so forth. But very few younger people, except for the staff and the people running the computer classes, etc. It occurred to me that, while I'm sure such a place is fine for a lot of people, I would never want to live in a place like that. I don't want to live a life of "leisure" if that means simply doing things to entertain myself. It seems to me that the reason we evolved such a long lifespan is, as some evolutionary biologists suggest, it is a survival benefit to have the wisdom of our elders available to the younger generations. I mean, sure, some elders have more wisdom than others to impart. But it just seems to me that some elders ought to remain, as long as possible, in contact with the rest of the world, if only to help give the younger people a sense of context and perspective. Of course, for this to work, there has to be a culture in place to make it work --- not only the young people but the elders themselves have to understand how to behave in relation to each other, how to maximize the benefit for everyone... it's a shared responsibility that takes a lot of work on all sides, a lot of sensitivity and awareness. It's not for everyone, but it seems to me that we have done less than we might have to promote sharing across the generations --- it's a mutual failure on both the part of the older generations and the younger.

September 17, 2006

It's very peculiar --- I was just reading this article about how much less brain area in men is devoted to processing feelings versus women --- I think the wording one researcher used was that, for processing feelings, women have an eight-lane superhighway, and men have a country road. I often find myself wondering how I feel about a situation, a person, etc... I have to engage in detective work to figure it out. I feel something and don't know what it means, and I have to turn to other signs to uncover the truth.

September 16, 2006

I have to say, this MacBook Pro is really a joy to use --- it's not that any given application is all that different from a Windows or Ubuntu/Linux app --- but the combination of the consistency of design and all the little features that make things easier and more intuitive add up to a dramatically different overall experience. Using a Mac feels fluid, and everything seems faster; one moves and uses the system with a greater economy of motion. What's more, all this ease of use doesn't come at the cost of flexibility and power, since underlying OS X is a full-blown open source BSD implementation (Darwin), complete with all the power of the vast array of open source software --- I can run Eclipse, Apache, PostgreSQL, the GIMP, PHP, etc., and on and on. It's power AND simplicity, in one computer.

I've finally gotten a chance to use my new copy of Final Cut Pro --- so far, haven't done that much with it other than simply cut together some HDV video I took of Lilian and Jim's wedding; but it's amazing to be able to edit and see one's edits appear essentially in real time.

September 15, 2006

I had dinner with always very interesting Jenny Doussan last night, who is, unfortunately, leaving the country for England to pursue her PhD; we will miss her.

September 14, 2006

I was talking with Karina about Portland and happened to send her a link to some Portland street art, and she sent me a link to this remarkable graffiti artist, Banksy. She sent me some links to some of his particularly arresting images; for example, check out this, or this. He also did a clever series involving cheap paintings which he'd modify: for example: this, this, and this; now that I think of it, I do remember seeing the last two images before, but I didn't know who had made them, or what the range of his work was.

September 13, 2006

The world can get sort of sticky sometimes; you want to wash it off, but it stays on. The only way to really keep it from sticking, ironically, is to connect with more of it, as it really is, which is much, much more than it ever appears to be. To allow it to be not just the known but the unknown, as well.

Isaac Chappell sends me a link to this game, Flow, in response to my post a few days ago.

September 12, 2006

Katharine sends me this rather frightening table of numbers. It does feel like the end of an empire, does it not? How irresponsible can we really get?

September 11, 2006

On the day ABC/Disney runs its absurdly distorted "docudrama" it's apropos to reflect on the words of Richard Clarke (the real Richard Clarke, not the imaginary one depicted in the miniseries) back in 2004:

RC: Well let me ask you: Contrast December '99 with June and July and August 2001. In December '99 we get similar kinds of evidence that al-Qaida was planning a similar kind of attack. President Clinton asks the national security advisor to hold daily meetings with attorney-general, the CIA, FBI. They go back to their departments from the White House and shake the departments out to the field offices to find out everything they can find. It becomes the number one priority of those agencies. When the head of the FBI and CIA have to go to the White House every day, things happen and by the way, we prevented the attack. Contrast that with June, July, August 2001 when the president is being briefed virtually every day in his morning intelligence briefing that something is about to happen, and he never chairs a meeting and he never asks Condi rice to chair a meeting about what we're doing about stopping the attacks. She didn't hold one meeting during all those three months. Now, it turns out that buried in the FBI and CIA, there was information about two of these al-Qaida terrorists who turned out to be hijackers [Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi]. We didn't know that. The leadership of the FBI didn't know that, but if the leadership had to report on a daily basis to the White House, he would have shaken the trees and he would have found out those two guys were there. We would have put their pictures on the front page of every newspaper and we probably would have caught them. Now would that have stopped 9/11? I don't know. It would have stopped those two guys, and knowing the FBI the way they can take a thread and pull on it, they would probably have found others.

JB: So might they have stopped the September 11 attacks?

RC: I don't want to say they could have stopped the attacks. But there was a chance.


September 10, 2006

What consistently interests me is the idea of art which functions; art which participates in the world of the viewer, which becomes part of that world, responds to it, reshapes itself and evolves. Games are a sort of limited version of this --- but they exist, typically, in a sort of hermetically sealed world --- multiplayer games extend this idea a bit further, but the primary actors in such worlds are people, with the context merely being a simulation; I have in mind more artwork which itself becomes a more central participant in the interaction. I suppose, to some extent, that's what fuels my interest in artificial intelligence and interactive fiction --- but the problems of architecting a system which can respond in meaningful ways to human interaction are extremely complex and difficult. There must be ways, however, to, in some simpler fashion, craft systems which don't themselves have to be Turing test passing artificial intelligences, yet which can do more than simply simulate a fantasy world. Such an experiment would require an immensely sophisticated and subtle way of interacting with computers and input and output devices --- something that goes beyond current approaches to software development; approaches which are both powerful and subtle, which allow building sophisticated abstractions on top of other abstractions in ways that are more than merely logical; approaches that allow for fuzzy edges and nonlinear relationships.

September 9, 2006

Sorry for the long delay in posting --- I've switched to a MacBook Pro (as I wrote about below), and have been furiously transferring all my environment from my Ubuntu applications to Mac applications, as well as installing various open source packages. A few tips for those thinking of moving from Ubuntu to OS X: the best place to get packages is DarwinPorts, not fink. Fink is more apt-like, but the packages tend to be broken or problematic. DarwinPorts, however, compiles everything from source, so it can take a long time to install things. Also, it can require more technical knowhow to install a DarwinPorts package, especially if it has a bug or two (as some do --- but far less problematic than the fink packages). I don't recommend trying to use too many GUI-based X applications -- they don't integrate well with OS X native apps. Go with NeoOffice (a native port of OpenOffice), translate your email to Mac Mail rather than trying to use KMail or Evolution, etc. Linux server applications work great, however, though it takes a little more time to configure than it does with Ubuntu. Overall, I'm quite happy with the switch.

I have a lot of accumulated things to talk about, which I'll be writing about later.

September 2, 2006

Random Montréal notes:

Went into a schlocky Francophone bookstore/gift store that had a lot of really tacky-looking picture frames and other knickknacks, clearly selling stuff to the lowest common denominator --- basically a kind of Wal-Mart level of merchandise... yet, even a mass-market sort of place like this had three shelves devoted to political books about globalization, among other things, including books with titles (in French) like "The New Masters of the World," "The Death of Globalization," and so forth. The market for books that in the US would be considered controversial for a lot of bookstores is par for the course even at a relatively lowbrow place here.

The Rue Ste Catherine, which, at least on its western end, is comprised mainly of fairly boring mall-like stores (including many American chains like Urban Outfitters, etc.). Yet no mall in America has the regularly-spaced sprinkling of strip club entrances which loudly proclaim "contact dancing" (which, I assume, means lap dancing), practically one in each block.

The bakeries here are, as expected, a hell of a lot better than bakeries in New York, or pretty much anywhere in America. Sigh.

I got some slice pizza here and the girl behind the counter kept fiddling with and changing which orange juice bottle she was going to give me. She finally admitted that the reason for this was simply that she found all the bottles she had chosen not sufficiently chilled. The surprise here to me is not so much that she'd have that level of service orientation (I don't think service is particularly better, overall, in Montréal than in most American cities) --- the surprise is that she would even notice the temperature of my orange juice, or care enough to think it was unacceptable.

The Montréal Festival des Films du Monde happens to be playing now. By mistake, I started watching a short Hindi film that had French subtitles --- but to my relief and surprise, though I can't usually follow most spoken French, I was able to more or less understand the subtitles as they went by, getting at least 3/4ths of it, which was plenty to keep up with the plot. I still can't hear spoken French all that consistently, though it's getting better --- and I can't actually speak French with any degree of confidence.

It's not all great. While I did see a beautiful Jean-Luc Godard film in the outdoor amphitheatre they'd set up as one of the venues of the festival for showing classic films, I also saw part of an ancient, ludicrously bad comedy by Louis Malle, a director I otherwise really like, called "Viva Maria!". It's amazing that a culture as refined and sophisticated as the French can sometimes evidence such a slapstick sensibility when it comes to humor. The French film Ridicule illustrated this curious dichotomy by expressing the theory that, while the French have an infinitely subtle and sophisticated grasp of sarcasm and "wit" (by which the film meant, something like: exceptionally clever and intricate put-downs), they are relative newcomers to the land of humor (some of the characters hilariously said the word "humeur" as though they were speaking of some strange, exotic new plant species), which they portrayed as an English innovation. (I should note: bucking the trend, that film is perhaps one of the most subtly humorous French films I have ever seen...)

September 1, 2006

Am in Montréal for the holiday weekend. It's nice to be able to drive to a mostly French-speaking city in a matter of six and a half hours.