Friday, December 23, 2005

It's Because Of Narrative

The true criterion for rightness and goodness:
It's no accident that there is no American literature celebrating imperial presidential powers, celebrating a president operating in secret to expand his powers while citing national security threats, celebrating, in short, demagoguery. No great American literature or Hollywood movie has rewarded trampling on the Constitution. No celebrations of the US waterboarding detainees. What is our whole national literature about? ...It's about doing the right thing. Not only that - it's about the right thing prevailing, being rewarded. It's about justice prevailing over injustice. It's about abuses -- deception, corruption, violence, racism -- being ratted out. It's about those who deceive, who seek to grab power, who become corrupted by power, who go on witch hunts, who appeal always to fear as a form of political manipulation -- ultimately being exposed and falling, being censured by a system that is more powerful than they are. In particular, our national literature has celebrated one thing: the individual - the ordinary public servant, the small town lawyer, the ordinary citizen -- who labors to make justice prevail (to kill a mockingbird, sinclair lewis, a civil action, three days of the condor), and has been especially harsh on one thing: the political leader who deceives and who seeks to expand his power. The Watergate break-in is not celebrated in our national literature -- it's those who expose it. The McCarthy witchhunts aren't celebrated in our Hollywood movies -- it's those who finally exposed McCarthy for what he was. No popular movies celebrating the Reagan administration's secret selling of TOW missiles to the mullahs in Iran and diverting the proceeds to the Contras. Americans have a fundamental distrust of government conducted in secret, of those leaders who would seek to expand their powers in secret, appealing always to fear. We know what would happen in the movies. The demagogue would fall. The system, we would be assured, works. It would retract back to normalcy.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Non-Virtual Blogging

The proprietors of Second Americano have come for a non-virtual visit and, today, gone on their way. Soon the only traces that remain of their appearance here in Seattle shall be a few bytes in cyberspace and a few fused neural connections in our collective cerebral cortices. They managed to actually blog a couple of times during the visit, while over here at OaO (you gotta love it when your target demographic gives your product a nickname) my little political rant was sitting at the top of the page, still making me feel dirty. But enough of that. The only thing I wanted to say here at the moment was that, in spite of the constant virtual relationship built from discourse through blogging, we miss our friends, are happy when they are, however briefly, here, and sad that they live so very far away from us.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I Just Don't Get It

Every time I post on politics, I feel dirty later on, like I've gone and sacrificed reason in order to blow off steam. But then I keep doing it anyway. So, today, in addition to everything else I think is ridiculous about the current administration, I share Emery's bewilderment on the issue of unchecked NSA Surveliance vis-a-vis Conservatism. As the story I've linked indicates, having been caught red-handed in the act, and apparently having learned the lesson of the Plame leak, they're loudly proclaiming that what they're doing is absolutely just and right. I don't know, as this thing gets rolling, if legal parsing will make it so or not, but I do understand that a base tenet of Conservatism is distrust of government. The government should not be in your life. It is bottom-line dogma.

But even this isn't what I don't get. What I don't get is what's in it for them. One of my basic a priori assumptions about humanity is that no one actually thinks of themself as an evil, arch-villian. Yes, George Bush has cut taxes and overseen an unchecked growth in spending, mostly to the benefit of the extremely wealthy. There's not much question outside of Neo-conservative circles that this is an act of evil, but if what you want is that your nation doesn't tax you and doesn't pay for anything but national defense (the stated aim of the Neo-conservative movement), you might reasonably believe that it is right to bankrupt your nation's government in order to achieve this result.

Likewise, I just can't bring myself to believe that George W. Bush thinks that it would be better for this nation if he had unchecked dictatorial power. I'm sure he believes that there are things that have to be done for the security and safety of this nation, that his administration has to do what it has to do. I mean, I understand the psychology of it, I do. One of my previous jobs, in the earlier days of, was to solve problems. If something was blocking the flow of orders from the website, or the generation of shipments from the warehouse, or the shipping of those orders out the door, I was supposed to fix it. When I started the job, the company was relatively small, and I had direct administrative access to many of the servers, production databases, and software that ran the company (I had, what I used to refer to headily as "The Unlimited Power"). I literally had the power to take down the company if I wasn't careful. I was damn good at this job, and I also occasionally screwed up. A couple of times I screwed up badly, and a warehouse would stop functioning for several hours. Eventually the company started to put protocols in place, such that I couldn't just ad-hoc modify production data or software. I could still do it, but I had to get permission first. At first (and by "at first," I mean, "for the rest of the time I worked that job") I was pretty pissed off about it--they wanted me to solve problems, and these bureaucratic hoops were just getting in my way. To me they didn't seem to serve any useful purpose whatsoever, they were just blocking a person who was damn good at his job from doing it.

You know what? I was wrong. I was a lot wrong. Those protocols are there for a reason, because it is not a good idea to give people the Unlimited Power. Sometimes people with The Unlimited Power get paged in the middle of the night, log in to work, think that they're clearing an order queue that's blocked and accidentally delete everything in it instead. It's not because they mean harm, but it happens anyway.

So I don't get it. I don't get what they think they're doing. And, to quote Emery again, where is the outrage? Every aggressor in the history of the world who invaded another country said they were doing it for the safety of them and everyone else, and I'm sure the people who said it believed it. Every state that captured citizens and held them without trial, and that tortured them, said that those citizens were direct threats to that nation's security, and that it was absolutely necessary for the common good. Every leader who claimed unchecked executive power on his way to dictatorship claimed that he was doing it for the good of the citizenry. Every. Single. One. In. The. History. Of. The. World. I'm not saying this is where we're headed. I am saying that this is what it looks like when you are.

Friday, December 16, 2005

My Poor Brain

The post below reminded me of something else I wanted to mention: I am 32 years old, and find that it is noticeably harder for me to grok new models and concepts than it was, say, five years ago. That is to say, it takes more time and more mental effort for me to understand things that do not directly relate to things I already know about. I worked at my current job for a month or so before I actually understood the underlying philosophy to what I was doing--I actually blogged about the meeting I was sitting in when it finally hit me what we were working on.

This is a well known phenomenon, I guess--it is generally understood, in academia for instance, that new schools of thought and modes of study come in with the new faculty and the old ones don't leave until the faculty who study and/or championed them retire. This is so well understood in mathematics that the Field's Medal, which is the Nobel Prize of the discipline, cannot be won by anybody over 35--it's part of the rules. But it's only lately become clear to me that it's not just that people get set in their ways, or like to stick with modes of thinking in which they're familiar, but that the brain is physiologically becoming fixed. The neural connections have already formed, and there just aren't that many more left to fuse.

Well, I'm depressed. I'll never win that Field's Medal now.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Web, v 2.0

On Monday, after one of those evenings at work that lasts an unnecessarily long time, we launched the Alexa Web Service Platform (Please, hold back your gasps and applause until the end. Really, it's an honor just to be nominated). This is not to say that I had anything to do with this service or implementing what it does--we just sort of make things that allow other things to do what they do for the people out there in the world. We're sort of the BASF of the web services universe (anybody who gets that reference without clicking the link wins a prize. Anybody who gets that reference and also knows what a web service is...actually, then you'd be me. Never mind).

Alexa is a company that crawls the web and archives it. The upshot of the new web service is that you can write your own search engine (where "you" = "a software engineer with an understanding of what a web service is and how to use one") without actually having to do the actual searching. Is this good/great/revolutionary/going to change the world overnight? Some people think so. The idea that the next great Google-like product will be produced not by some large corporate amalgam, but instead by a guy in a garage is, I admit, more like the market universe that you and I know and love and wish we actually lived in.

I've sort of shied away from trying to explain the universe that I'm working in these days, but the new Alexa search platform is sort of a good example of what this is all about. For instance, go to the front page of Google. Go ahead, I'll be here when you get back. You are (or were, just then) looking at the user interface to the largest, fastest, and most versatile repository of information in the history of the world--a text box and two buttons, one of which is almost totally superfluous. To you, Google is a website. Hiding behind that web page, however, is an enormously complex suite of software, database applications, algorithms, guys who work on and improve the products--but you can't use any of that directly, you can only use it the way Google wants (or has time and resources) to present it to you.

This is what web services (and the general idea behind Internet, Version 2.0) are about. You could, if you were Google, allow computer programmers and/or programs access into your inner sanctum, charge them some money for it, and they could implement all manner of new websites or stand-alone desktop applications using Google's already implemented work. This takes Google from being a website and turns it into a platform on which you can compute (I don't know if anybody out there will even understand that sentence, but the concept is, strictly relatively speaking, pretty revolutionary).

Anyway, this is what Alexa has done, except that their website hasn't ever registered in your consciousness the way Google's has. Somewhere, some small subset of the IT world is working away at this, slowly exposing the underbelly and guts of the internet to the world at large. It won't be an exciting revolution--in fact I doubt anyone will notice that it happens, or really understand what the difference is between that and the web you've got already.

Oh well, back to work then.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Love, Sex, and Death (no, just kidding. More math).

"'Math types'...have a tendency to think math is THE expression, that it gets at some deeper truth than other expressions can. I once argued for hours with my friend Mark, who swears that if a = b and b = c then a = c IS TRUE. IS TRUE, not as a property of western logic, but simply as a fact of the universe. I've read way too much Heidegger to buy that."

I find it interesting, and yet also a source of my own enormous personal smug-itude, that most people who think that math is cool think it's cool roughly for the reason that Sam states: Math is The Expression of Truth, God is a Mathematician, all of scientific knowledge is intrinsically written in Mathematical language. That kind of thing--basically that Math is different or pure or something. They believe this in spite of the that fact that it's been PROVEN USING ITS OWN AXIOMS that it isn't.

If you're not interested in more philosophy of Mathematics, you can stop reading, because I've given you the punchline. Math may appear to be different than, say, language or Philosophy, and immune from the freaky things that happen when you start using language to talk about language or Philosophy to talk about Philosophy. It's not. Kurt Gödel proved that this was the case. He did it using math.

There was a movement in mathematics over the 250 years or so prior to Gödel's proof to logically formalize pretty much everything in math--that is, to formally derive it from first principles. The zenith of this effort was probably Whitehead & Russel's Pricipia Mathematica. This is a book which everyone claims is brilliant and groundbreaking, and which no one has actually read. It's several hundred pages long, and proves such things as, given the well defined concepts of addition, one, and two, that 1 + 1 = 2. No, really. And it proves them only if you take a couple of things, one of which being that meta- is not allowed to occur, to be axioms. Anyway, this movement pretty much died with Gödel. The idea that "Math is different" seems to have not died at all.

The Incompleteness Theorem is generally listed, with Relativity and Quantuum Theory, as one of the most profound theoretical advances of the 20th century. But whereas you almost cannot get through a high school physics class without learning Special Relativity, and the first thing you learn in chemistry class is the Bohr Atom, I have a BA in Mathematics and my classroom time with the Incompleteness Theorem was about ten minutes, it was a sidelight in the midst of learning about the rigorous formalization of the foundations of calculus, and it was presented like, "well, isn't that whacky. Anyway, back to what we were doing...." Apparently the idea that Mathematics isn't the language of truth any more than anything else is is too hard to grok, even for the Mathematicians.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Dreams = Interesting, Math = Not Interesting

My now semipenultimate entry below, the Twilight Zone dream musings, currently has ten comments (from, admittedly, only five distinct parties, one of whom is me, and half of them are actually about who has been together longer without being wed, but still — dude, ten comments!). The one above it is holding steady at none. I'm sensing my audience shifting back and forth on their feet, thinking, "Uh...math. Dude, that's...really...great." How come nobody thinks Math is as cool as I do? No, really. Come on people, I think Theory is cool. Give me some love here.
  • Yeah, so...dreams. Last night I dreamed that I walked out the back door of our house and into this enormous other house which, at first, I took to be some sort of annex to our house that I hadn't known about. Then suddenly the caterers showed up, as well as a bunch of guys in green kilts and green shirts festooned with gold trim, who were carrying in folding chairs and setting them up. Then I realized I was in some sort of hall that people rented for weddings. "So..." I thought, "is this part of our house, or what?" I'm sure Freud would have a field day with that one.

  • I have lots of dreams where I realize I'm dreaming. Lately, in them, I've taken to examining the scenery, or walls, or trees, in them, just to see how good the scan resolution of my dream-brain is (it turns out to be as good as I want it to be).

  • When I started sleeping in proximity to L., she started appearing in my dreams as a matter of course--whatever I dreamt about, she was just there.

  • A couple of songs that I'm working on now have parts (choruses, words, chord progressions) that came from dreams--I dreamt them and then they were still in my head when I woke up.

  • I've had what I assume other people are talking about when they say they've had out-of-body experiences (I am far from prepared to say that that's what happening, though who the hell knows). It otherwise feels like dreaming, with the notable exception of the distinct feeling of being lifted up and out of your body, and a sort of white-out of my field of vision and feeling of coming back when they're over. In one of them I was on the street outside our apartment, in another I went flying off somewhere, and ended up in front of a house on a hill. I walked up the steps and inside and there sitting on the couch was me, 20 years hence--looked like me, only skinnier and I had a relatively full beard. I started asking him (me) questions, and he (I) just looked at me and said, "Dude, you have no idea what's about to hit you." Then he took his hands and made a gesture like one might make to indicate that ones head is exploding. That dream/experience was six months ago. I'm still waiting on that particular prophesized revelation.

As I said in one of the ten (ten!) comments, the theory about RAM dumps is just my own "why" of dreams, and it's really only the why within a particular model of consciousness (though I do think that it nicely answers the question of why sleep isn't restful unless you dream). I don't know where I first ran into this idea, but it's not at all clear what the difference between "out there" and "in here" is as far as the brain is concerned. All is translation from the input from the receivers of vibration, or a particular spectrum of visible light, or chemoreceptors. More than a few smart people think that this distinction--in here versus out there--doesn't exist at all, at least not the way we think it does.

When we dream, we'd all agree that this distinction is gone entirely, though, for myself at least, it's something I still seem to enforce. Even when I know I'm dreaming I'm still dreaming of a distinct me, there's a distinct outside with distinct others in it. It can shift fluidly (I find in my dream narratives that I become different people at arbitrary points), but there's still that sense of me vs. not-me. So apparently I am clinging to some sort of distinction that doesn't really exist, at least not while I'm dreaming. Does it when I'm awake? Bring on the comments.

Friday, December 09, 2005


Mark is home sick with some manner of bronchial unpleasantness, but he fought through the fog the other night to call me on the phone and say this: "I was just thinking about your prime number thing. I was wondering if you could model it as a fractal." Since I had, myself, been thinking about prime numbers as the result of iterative functions (which is another way to say 'fractals'), it has suddenly become a good time for a brief plunge into things math-y (except secretly I will be using math as a metaphor for life, because that's just the kind of guy I am).

First of all, about my prime number thing: it's a trivially easy fact to prove that all primes greater than 3 can be expressed in the form 6n +/- 1, where n is an integer. That is, prime numbers appear on either side of multiples of six (5 and 7 around 6, 11 and 13 around 12, 17 and 19 around 18). The converse, obviously, isn't true (not all numbers of the form 6n +/- 1 are prime), nor are there any inferences to be made about, e.g., 6m + 1 being a prime for some m because 6m - 1 is prime (23 is prime, but 25 isn't). I generally state my "prime thing" as, "All the numbers of the form 6n +/- 1 are prime, except for the ones that aren't." There's more to it than that--it involves graphing them in a particular way such that there's a well defined way of drawing lines on the same graph that will run through the 6n +/- 1's that aren't prime. This may or may not sound all ground-breaking and shit, but in fact it is nothing more than a visual representation of Erastothenes' Prime Sieve.

Primes are interesting (um...relatively speaking) because you can predict nearly everything about them except where they actually are. The sequence that starts 2,3,5,7,11,13... is pretty much a random sequence of numbers--they all share a particular property, but there's no mathematical way, given prime Pn, to calculate Pn+1. This problem is considered so unsolveable (not that the solution is hard, but that there's simply no solution) that the famous (again, relatively speaking--Brad Pitt is not sitting at home trying to solve this problem or nothing) unsolved problem about prime numbers isn't about trying to figure out a nice formula for whether a number is prime or not. It's The Hilbert Conjecture, and it only tries to quantify the distribution of primes based on The Riemann Zeta Function (Don't try to understand that last sentence, but you might want to click on the link, because the pictures are cool).

With digital computers we got fractals and chaos mathematics--somewhere along the line between the Greeks and ourselves people started to notice that nature didn't behave geometrically. In the words of Tom Stoppard:

Thomasina: Each week I plot your equations dot for dot, xs against ys in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God's truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?

Septimus: We do.

Thomasina: Then why do your equations only describe the shapes of manufacture?

Septimus: I do not know.

Thomasina: Armed thus, God could only make a cabinet.

It's one of the entirely reasonable but oft-unexamined tenets of our scientific knowledge that it is all written in mathematical language. There's a certain tautology to this (science = anything you can describe mathematically, all else is philosophy, language, metaphor, etc.), but on the other hand, math has proved to be awfully prescient and adaptive to the needs of scientists and scientific theory over the years. The physicists at the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, were pleasantly surprised to find that Riemannian Geometry (geometry of curved spaces) had existed for a hundred years or so when they discoverd that space itself was also curved. But it's only been in the last fifty years or so that we've really had the ability to, as Thomasina puts it in Arcadia, graph more than x's and y's. You only have to look at a bluebell to see that nature isn't geometric, and look at a Romanescu Cabbage to see evidence that nature does seem to be fractal--ever repeating, but always a little bit different with each iteration, on down to infinity. Fractals and chaos mathematics have fallen out of favor in the last ten years or so, because thusfar they've produced pretty pictures but few useful results. I think, though, this is another one of those cases where math is just waiting for science to catch up.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Submitted For Your Approval

L. and I have just started watching Lost, so we're in a kind of "hidden eerieness" frame of mind at the moment.

Ignoreable offtopic digressions:
  • There should be a verb that distinguishes watching episodic TV week by week on the network or cable channel that airs it versus watching it ad hoc on DVD. And, probably, for as long as there's this distinction, between network watching and TiVo watching. We are, for the record, DVD watching.
  • How long before the Style Manual is updated to indicate that titles of works, just as they are to be italicized in regular (non-hyper) texts, must be linked when they appear in hypertexts? And what will the guidelines be for what is to be at the end of those links? Will placement in the Style Manual be something that, say, Amazon can buy for books, or IMdb can buy for movies and TV shows?
  • Discuss
  • Do not discuss anything about Lost, because we do not want any of it spoiled for us.

With that in mind, I present this: the other day I woke up with the flavor of an odd dream still lingering in my brain, in which I was married to somebody else (a real person, somebody, in real life, that I used to work for), and sort of came into the dream in medias res thinking, "Crap. This must have seemed like an okay idea at the time, I mean I like this person well enough, but I was really happy being married to L. What the hell happened?" Later I either woke up or dreamt that I woke up and discovered it was all okay. Later that day I off-the-cuff emailed L. about it and...wait for it...she had had the same dream--same situation (in her dream she had married the (real-life) son of some friends of her parents), same sense of the dream (the sort of wtf? at suddenly being married to somebody else).

We were trying to figure out what might have triggered this little synchrony--the only thing we could come up with was that we'd gotten news the night before that some very very long time couple friends of ours were getting married (unceremoniously taking the mantle from Sam and Red as Partners Who Held Out Longest Before Succumbing to the Heterosexist Matrix, Who Are Also Friends of Ours) (It's a really nice trophy, too, burnished metal mounted on an oak base with gothic lettered engraving, I really hate to have to fly to Wales and relieve them of it). But that was as good as we could do, and it wasn't an entirely satisfying explanation.

People spend about five minutes with us before remarking that we sound like the same person. I guess this happens when you start evolving in tandem with somebody else, and from my perspective (and L.'s, I assume) it's that our brains (figuratively!) run in the same channel. There'll be some sort of external stimulus, such as a third party saying something, and as if it were the setup to a joke we both know, we'll burst out with the same response. So this dream thing, if the dream was the punchline, got me to wondering what the setup was.

You don't remember words, or images, or smells, or sounds. What you hold in your brain are chemical patterns and signals, and other parts of the brain interpret those things as words and images and sounds each time you remember something. In the same way, dreams aren't made up of images or sounds, they are made up of chemical signals wandering around--my own pet theory is that your brain is doing a nightly RAM dump, that 'tiredness' is actually your available RAM filling up, and dreaming is your conscious interpretation of the brain's batch job that moves the day's input either to the hard disk or to the trash bin. The images and sounds, in any case, are just a translation.

If all of those things are true, it's not even that surprising that L. and I would occasionally have run-ins in the sublimial realm. It wouldn't be surprising that we'd interpret a particular stimulus of the day with a similar response. It sure was creepy, though.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dan Hale

I didn't really know Dan, I met him once a couple of months ago at a party for L.'s department--he was, that particular evening, playing the role of techie spouse of an academic, just like me. A bunch of us went out to dinner afterwards, and I talked to him a little bit about things internet related. He was a pretty cool guy, I noticed that he was (literally and figuratively) soft-spoken, but otherwise he and his wife seemed young, normal, and happy.

Yesterday we attended his memorial service--he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a couple of years ago, and died two weeks ago after a long battle with it. It was a service both nice and, you know, terrible--it's tragic, and then when it's somebody your age with a life a lot like your own, it's also pretty visceral.

One of Dan's friends who stood up to speak during the service brought up a TiBook to the microphone with him, he said, "Sorry, I hope the laptop isn't tacky, but I was working on this speech until ten minutes ago." He read from his screen a description of his relationship with Dan, which, as it turned out, was almost entirely virtual. They'd been friends for ten years and, up until last month, they'd met in person a total of three times. Somewhere in the middle of this heartfelt eulogy about a relationship literally created out of email and hypertext, I thought, "I'm seeing something right here. And I don't quite know what it is."

Twenty-four hours later, I think what I thought I was seeing and what I was actually seeing (or wasn't actually seeing, as the case may have been) are two different things. I've talked about the subject a lot lately, and I guess it might seem like I don't think that Being-In-The-World (hey, Red started it) is any different today than, say, ten years ago when these two people met, because obviously it is, especially in the Heideggerian sense (I mean, hell, it's getting pretty hard to argue that your Virtual Being isn't a necessary component of In-The-World-Ness these days). For me the whole phenomenon is kind of koan-ic (no, it's not a word. And it certainly doesn't sound alarmingly like 'colonic.' Please move along, there is nothing to see here)--what appears different about life Now versus Then is not different; what you think has not changed between Then and Now actually has (this wants explanation, but it's too much of a digression right now. So, later).

No, what I came up with here, twenty-four hours later, was this: grief is also transcendant, in the same way that joy is. It takes you out of yourself, to that place where nothing else matters, an experience which turns out not to necessarily hinge on being joyous at all. That's what I was seeing, that humanness transcends the laptop and the email and the hypertext and all the rest of it. And I might have been able to see it a little better had I not been sitting there watching Dan's friend pour out his soul and thinking, "Wow, I'm seeing something right here. I'm going to have to decide what it is and go blog about it later."

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Well, Marble, Mud, And a Few Trace Elements Like Sodium and Phosphorus

The few spam mails that get through the filter on my email account are some of the most zen things I see on any given day...

Symantec Norton SystemWorks 2005 - $19.9

Simply pushing harder within the old boundaries will not do.
Alimony is like buying oats for a dead horse.
Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.
Life is made up of marble and mud.
God heals, and the doctor takes the fee.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
The guilty catch themselves.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Widening the Circle

The more perceptive of you will note the creation of the "Hermeneutic Blog Circle." It came about, initially, because I kept having to go to my blog and then click links from there to read blogs that are more than one degree of separation outside my immediate realm of blogging friends. Then there was some notion about the cyber-birthing of intellectual communities based on (un)common interests and blah blah post-modern blah, but I quickly became bored of all that.

It supposedly lists by most recently updated, and will display a friendly "new!" message if you have updated your blog in the last 12 hours (though so far I've only verified that it works for my own blog. Your mileage may vary). If for any reason whatsoever (e.g. you have a lack of coolness in your life, or some such thing) you wish to join the Hermeneutic Blog Circle, the code to add it into your style-sheets or whatever appears below:

<script language="javascript"
type="text/javascript" src="">

The content is, presently, entirely under my control. My editorial filter is well known to be a dictorial and unyielding one, but if you are feeling that your blog is unloved, leave me a message and I'll add you to the little virtual circle, if indeed I have even a vague idea who you are.

As you were.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Nothing Ever Changes, But Nothing Stays The Same

Mmm...Martha Stewarty
Originally uploaded by StoatBoy.
It's the day after Our First Thanksgiving in the New House™; today the friends and family are off shopping and gadding about (while I have elected to stay home, not that I don't love shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving...oh, no wait, I don't. I loathe them). It's Thanksgiving, and suddenly we live in house that looks like a house (instead of a vast recepticle of moving boxes), we have friends and family that come over and eat lots of food and drink wine and everything seems pretty okay again.* I've posted a few photos above; we had some exceedingly good squash in both soup and crepe form, and our friends Ryan and Alicia brought an entire carnivorous meal to go with our vegetarian fare. We ate a lot of food. Then we sat in the living room in a sort of mass food coma for about three hours. It was goooooooood.

At ten o'clock that night, there was a knock on our door. On our porch was standing a guy who could barely stand still, smelling of something smokey that I didn't recognize, telling me a desperate story about how his car was about to be towed and could I just give him a couple of bucks because his wallet was in the car, but he couldn't get it, and he would get it and pay me right back. I wasn't really sure what the right thing to do was. It didn't seem like I could really do him any favors either way. I gave him some money and he left. I don't know what I'll do the next time that happens.

It was the ten billionth Thanksgiving hosted by the newly married couple in their new house (oh look, it's 1952. Though I guess the crack addict having withdrawal was less than Eisenhower-y) in the history of mankind, and I don't know that the fact that I'm publishing the news and pictures about it on the web where people in China could (entirely theoretically) access it until the end of either time or digital computing, whichever comes first, makes it profoundly different from all those Thanksgivings celebrated by the poor sods who lived in the dark ages before wireless broadband. On the other hand, this one was different. This one was ours. One of my commonly-cited corollaries to Odds-Are-Oneness is that It's Different When It's You. All of the things, the problems, the joys, the sorrows, and the rites of whatever have been experienced and chronicled infinite times, but never by You. Wherever You are, somebody else has already been, and can tell you all about it. But it won't ever be quite the same, because that happened to Them. This is happening to You.

I'm not sure what the enlightened position on this is--I suppose if you're totally on board with the Sattvah, or whatever, there's no difference between Them and You: you've achieved totally empathy. That's what I hear, anyway. For the rest of us, I'm not sure what Right Action is. In the small things, like Thanksgiving, it seems okay to tell the stories and show the pictures. If You tell the story poorly, They will be bored for ten minutes, and if You tell the story well, They might be enthralled, and remember how it was when They had the same experience. Either way, no permanent scarring. As for the harder questions, I don't know.

*after seeming like our real estate experience couldn't possibly get any worse, this week it went ahead and got worse, which is what the trying-to-be-a-Buddhist entry below is about. I would talk about it, but it's too terrible. I want it to be done and to never speak of such things again. As L. says, we are never ever moving again. Ever.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


The Buddha says, attachment to material things is the source of all suffering. Somebody, somewhere, seems bound and determined for me to learn this lesson. And to learn it today, in particular.

On the minus side, dealing in real estate is not our friend.

On the plus side, when you are moving the large heavy objects to which you sometimes experience attachment, it is nice to have friends.

Also, it is nice to be married to someone who does not react to things going badly by getting mad at me, and I cannot imagine what it would be like to go through such an experience with houses and buying and selling as we have were this not the case. So, L., thanks and love. And that, folks, is as Buddhist as I can be right now.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Role of Calvino Will Be Played By Sam for Tonight's Performance

This post started as a comment on Sam's last post on the ongoing dialog about the Doomsday Argument (see below), but then it became hopelessly too long for a comment. If you are coming late to this, move on to something else more interesting (This must be what it is like if you're, e.g. dailykos versus drudge report, or whatever. Endless co-mingled threads that eventually manage to lose absolutely everybody. What fun).

Sam: I still think that Bayes tells (you) nothing about (you) being an American, until after he has found out his IS American, at which point Bayes and (you) agree, in that the latter says 'the odds are one' and the former says, 'we do not have a random sample any longer, so my logic does not apply'. Also, by the way, SEGA! iPOD NANO! RAGE!

The Stoat: Indeed, and perhaps I have previously said Bayes, author of the probability theory, where I meant Leslie, who is the author of the Doomsday Argument. Sorry about that.

Sam: I see. So we agree that the Doomsday Argument is wrong, and that it's because Bayes' Theory does not apply. Then what is your quibble?

The Stoat:My quibble is perhaps really only semantic, but it's that trying to attack the Doomsday Argument by figuring out whether you are a random sample of all of humanity is the path of madness. It seems hung up in problems of temporality, which Leslie tries to overcome with this idea of "Doom Early" (a bag with a few marbles) versus "Doom Late" (a bag with many, many marbles). Much argumentative reasoning ensues. My point is that it is for naught. Leslie is unlikely to be convinced, and you are unlikely to be convinced by Leslie, and I think it's because randomness doesn't enter into it. My argument is that deciding whether you are a random human is logically equivalent to asking "What are the odds that I would be born at the time I was actually born?" The question has meaning, but it is not about statistics or randomness, because you were actually born at that time, it has already happened. It's an Odds Are One™ question (I'm totally going to trademark this and then the residuals are going to start pouring in).

Sam: What does this have to do with Bayes' Theorem?

The Stoat: Nothing. My argument is that not that it doesn't apply because you're not a random human, my argument is that probability does not apply at all because you are already you, stating the argument.

Sam: I have completely, totally and utterly lost you.

The Stoat: Here is the argument I thought of on the walk to work this morning. Either this will help, or I should abandon this line of reasoning forever. The argument begins now. *Ahem*. One of the (many) things we gloss over in the Doomsday Argument is the idea that there is a discrete first human (or for that matter a discrete last one). Unless we are Creationists, we wouldn't argue this, but we are assuming that it doesn't matter too much. Anyway, assume you believe in evolution.

Sam: You may make that assumption.

The Stoat: Then, you, Sam, for the sake of argument the current person considering the Doomsday Argument, cannot trace your lineage back to a distinct first human. Nor can anyone. The so called "bag" containing all of humanity, even as a species, cannot be traced back to a distinct Homo Sapien #1.

Sam: Yes, I agree. But I don't see how it's a problem that the line is a little bit fuzzy between Homo Sapien and Homo Erectus, or whomever.

The Stoat: So if it's not, is it okay if our "bag" contains some Homo Erecti, or some thousands to million of years of transitional species, just to make sure we get everybody who might possibly be considered Homo Sapien #1?

Sam: No, no, I see where you're going with this. I'm going to get on a slippery slope wherein we wind up having to trace the human lineage back to amoebas or something when in fact I could never have been born as an amoeba.

The Stoat: Indeed, the odds of Sam being born an amoeba are zero, For You Are Sam.

Sam: For I Am Sam.

The Stoat: Anyway, that's not quite where I'm going with this. My proposal is that including subjects in your metaphysical grab bag, such as homo erecti or amoebas as whom you have no chance of being born invalidates the terms of the experiment.

Sam: I want to believe you, but I don't quite see that as a problem. Nor do I see that it can't be solved by starting a couple thousand years into the advent of Homo Sapiens and numbering one of them human number one, just to be safe.

The Stoat: I'll grant you the latter thing, because I don't actually need it to make my argument. What I need is the former thing. Recall why the Doomsday Argument actually seems to work: You have a bag labeled "All Humans For All Time," and you know that this bag has two possible identities: Doom Early, meaning that there are 70 billion total humans in the bag, and Doom Late, in which there are many trillion humans in the bag. You reach into the all-humans-for-all-time grab bag and pull out a human--it happens to be you, and you have a number affixed to you that's your birth order, and it is under 70 billion, you apply Bayes theorem, blah blah blah.

Sam: (makes the "blah blah blah" hand motion)

The Stoat: There's all that confusion about whether you being born is equivalent to somebody outside of time and space reaching into the bag a picking out a random person. In order for this to be valid, not only does the probability of you being selected have to be as likely as selecting anyone else (you are truly random), but the entity you select out of the bag has to be as likely to be you as anyone else (your probability space is truly random).

Sam: Why?

The Stoat: Those are the terms of the experiment. To be a random sample you'd have to be able to pop out at any point in history (that is, with any particular "number" affixed to you).

Sam: Ah, right. Isn't this what I was arguing?

The Stoat: Perhaps. Anyway, it's obvious that you have no chance of being an amoeba or a homo eretus. Now, if we solve this problem by removing the transitional species as you suggest above, and then reach into the bag and select...Njorl Hroffssen, fierce Norse warrior living in 800 C.E., what are the odds that this person is Sam?

Sam: Oh no....

The Stoat: ZERO! There are no odds! That person is not Sam. You reach into the bag and pull out Zarf VIII, Galactic Neural Coupling Plumbing Engineer, living in the 389th Solar Mega-Cycle after the dawn of the Total Information Era, what are the odds that this person is Sam?

Sam: I beg you to stop now....

The Stoat: None! Nada! Zilch! That person is not Sam. Sam does not and cannot exist outside the historical and societal context in which Sam exists.

Sam: Yeah. I made this exact same argument, only I used fewer words, and it made more sense.

The Stoat: You almost made this argument. My argument is that the Doomsday Argument might work fine in the abstract, with the idea of looking outside of time and space and reaching into the bag and pulling out a human and looking at his or her birth order. But the moment you apply the problem to yourself, a person alive right now, and this is the only way the argument could work, you fix yourself as you, Sam, and suddenly you cannot be a human pulled out of a bag at random, you can only be Sam. Sam does not exist at other times and places in the history of time. He only exists now. Bayes theorem does not apply not because you're un-randomly selected, but because probability does not apply to this question. The odds that you are you are one. The odds that you are not you are zero.

Sam: ...

The Stoat: Yes?

Sam: I hate you.

The Stoat: I know you do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Odds Holding Steady At One

Apparently this whole idea of "Your Frame Of Reference Is Flawed Because You're You" thing is nothing new to anybody. The linked paper is about the flaws in the Doomsday Argument, a modification of which I presented in my first Odds Are One-themed post. The abstract contains is a nice summary of many of the things I've tried to say on the subject:
For example, we have a tendency to infer non-randomness from apparent patterns in random events (witness the incorrigible optimists who spot trends in the spins of a roulette wheel or the ups and downs of the FT Share Index); at the same time, the history of statistics suggests that, when random samples are required, we often mistake the merely haphazard - or whatever happens to be near at hand - for the truly random.

In my continuing attempts to gauge my audience, I would guess that your eyes would glaze over were you to attempt to read the paper, or this, which is a pretty good explication of the Doomsday Argument, and which presents it in relation to the weak anthropic principle. It has been proved, after all, that you are Humanities-studying iPod owners (I mean, okay, I imagine Sam probably spent some hours of class time discussing the Doomsday Argument, but the rest of you probably not so much).

What's interesting about The Doomsday Argument (and if you haven't clicked one of the links, the explanation I gave previously, while not quite the same, works fine: it seems like you'd be statistically more likely to be born in the latter 2/3rds of all humans who have ever been born than in the former 1/3, but if that were the case then humans would have to become extinct in a few hundred years) is that at first it's hard to understand why this is actually any sort of philosophical problem--it just seems like The Damned Lies of Statistics (which, as I will one day blog about, are not Damned Lies of Statistics, they are Damned Lies of Language. Many people are just calling them "lies" these days). Then after you've groked the argument, it's equally hard to understand why your initial arguments against it don't quite work--it's based on the idea that the fact that You are Here, Now has some particular intrinsic meaning--or rather, that it doesn't, that you are a random sample from the grab bag labeled, "all humans in history." This makes counter arguments difficult, because You are, in fact, Here Now (e.g., counter-arguments like, "Yeah, but the Doomsday Argument has been true for everyone who has ever lived or is currently alive," seem like they're putting you on an equal observational footing with every other person in the "experiment." They're not. If there are only every going to be, say, 100 billion humans in the history of time, including humans 1 through 99,999,999,999 in your experiment doesn't give you any more information than you already had. You'd need the 124 billionth human in your sample to get any premise-shattering data, and you can't have him or her (or it). As soon as you state the terms of the argument, you put yourself at the argumentative "end of the line," as it were, and...okay, already your eyes are glazing over. You have no idea what I'm saying right now. I've completely lost you...uh...never mind).

What's also interesting about the Doomsday Argument is that I think problems like this are windows into new models. Whatever our current models for understanding probability and observation and, you know, being itself are, they can't quite handle this problem, which means some tear-down and rebuilding is indicated.

By the way, I stumbled upon all of this via this post, which I found through about Five Degrees of Blog Separation, a phenomenon with which, since my post on audience the other day, I have become obsessed. Interestingly, this guy thinks this paper solves the issue, which I don't at all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Goodnight, Sweet Pad

This is a just a short post to memorialize the place we have, last night, agreed to sell to someone else. Plenty of stuff could go wrong between now and the time it actually is to become that unmet person's property, but last night was the occasion upon which we agreed to terms, so I'm having my little moment now. It served both as my swank bachelor pad and also the first place L. and I lived after we were married. Plus, goddammit, it was a cool little crib. Quoting Ani DiFranco:

I'm recording our history now on the bedroom wall
and eventually the landlord will come
and paint over it all

Friday, November 11, 2005

On Audience, Redux

Someone walked by my office on Wednesday afternoon, reached down to give the dog, curled up in her usual place in the hallway just outside the door, a good scratch on the head, and asked if this was the famous brilliant yet neurotic dog, and oh, did we find a house yet? This is somebody known by me only to the eye--he works in another group on another floor, and I didn't know his name, nor had we ever had a conversation. He turned out, however, to be a manager on the Mechanical Turk project, and apparently one of the things you do if you're a manager on the Mechanical Turk project is search blogs to see what people are writing about your new product. So anyway, here was some fellow who'd figured out whom I was based on the fact that I worked peripherally on Mech Turk (which is what we cool "tech" people call it), and that I was the owner of a smart neurotic dog (who is, I might add, now utterly famous because what she does with her day is walk around the floor and wander into people's offices so that they can scratch her. Most people, apparently, have never met a dog this...personable). And, most importantly, he had read my blog.

Here in this ring of blogs we talk much meta- about what we are writing and for whom we write it, and I suppose some large portion of me hopes or imagines that I'm blogging to the masses, to people I don't know and who don't know me. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Sam and U2 and acquired a comment from someone named Tarn, author of Matrices of Syncopation. She's at St. Mary's College, ergo a former collegue of Sam and Rebecca, and it turns out that she found me and had blogged about my blog a couple of months back (although she makes reference to me being funny, and what with our forays into intense Capitalism dragging me into glumness, I feel like I haven't written anything funny in awhile).

Anyway, it made me want more. You know, more audience. Audience is yummy. As I've said, almost the entire content of what I write is (un) secretly notes to L., or Sam & Red, or Greg, but every now and then I seem to be hitting something that worms its way into a slightly wider circle, and gives me that momentary glimpse of an idea that if I were writing slightly differently, I'd be...what? A rich and famous blogger? If I wrote about U2 or my insider view of the latest tech news all the time, I'm sure I'd find an immediate audience, but I think I'd find it pretty hard to tell my story within a context like that. And it's not at all clear what the story I'm trying to tell is, other than to write something that people want to read. Anyway, writing about U2 on the day or two after Sam and Tarn had had their transcendant experience at the D.C. show seems to me to be the closest I've come to what I'm trying to be get at. And it was kind of opportunist, and still a long way off.

By the way Mechanical Turk TPM Dude (and everyone else), we did get a house, we closed on Tuesday, I'm sitting in our new breakfast nook in our new kitchen using our new wireless broadband here at the end of a Friday night and thinking that, after all of that, it's a pretty fantastic thing.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

This Sort Of Thing Is Not My Bag

I don't much post on politics these days because of its constant self-satirizing ridiculousness, but this is...really heavy with the irony.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Mechanical Turk

It's one a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning, and I'm working. The reason this is happening is because a) I work on the internet, in all its 24-hour, global reaching glory, b) something is broken with said internet, and c) some of the people who work on part of this internet live in India, and this is the time during which both parties are awake.

The Mechanical Turk was a chess-playing automaton built by an 18th Century Hungarian. It was a box with a mannequin attached to it, with a chess board on top of the box. The box was visibly filled with gears and springs, and it seemed you could wind up the box, and the mannequin would play chess against any opponent, and almost always win.

Mechanical Turk is also the name of the project that's keeping me up late into the night tonight. It's an idea that sounds either very cool or completely useless, depending upon what kind of mood you're in. The idea is that humans are good at some tasks computers are not good at, such as recognizing if a photo contains a picture of a particular person, or writing an essay, or whatever. If you're writing a computer program, and you want to, e.g., evaluate a photostream, you'd like to be able to write something like this:

/* publish only photos that contain
that God of Rock and Roll, The Edge
foreach p (photostream) {
if (doesPhotoContainTheEdge(p)) {

What you had to do previously is get a person to look at the photos and choose some. What Mechanical Turk lets you do is...get a person to look at the photos and choose some. You pay them three cents or so for doing it, and the Mechanical Turk website runs the process in between somebody looking at the photos and turning that into information you can aquire from a computer program, plus the administrivia of getting people paid (and taking a cut) and making sure workers are doing a reasonable job. It's banking on the idea that there are enough people in the world with nothing better to do so as to make this massive, constant, virtual artificially intelligent workforce. And that there is going to be some useful application out there in the world for this.

Amazon has become large enough to throw money at things like this, things which are functionally R&D products brought to the market just to see what happens. I gather that basically Jeff Bezos thought it was a cool idea. It might turn in to something, or it might die a swift death after creating a bunch of wonk-fueled buzz this week. What it makes me think of, sitting on the couch with a computer on my lap and a hands-free device in my ear, listening to people on two continents discuss a problem with the website that I already know we're not going to be able to solve tonight, is that no matter how automated a process seems to be, how mechanized the job that's being performed, there are always humans hidden away, deciding how the pieces will be moved. The secret of the original Mechanical Turk was a chess master concealed in the mannequin--the gears were just there for misdirection. Tonight I'm feeling like a lot of these things that look like the work of machines aren't really that much more automated--human intervention is still required. The only thing that has ever changed is how many levels deep it's hidden.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

There Was Nothing About It That Didn't Suck

I've been thinking all day about what I wanted to write about the process of buying a house and selling our condo, and while it's not even remotely over, I'm logging in at this point in the perhaps vain hope that it gets better from here (please knock wood when you read this). But I can't think of a more cogent summary than what titles this entry. It long ago stopped being about the amount of money things cost, or the complete arbitrariness of the market. It's become instead this misery of having relationships with people grounded in the conscience of money, and being in this place where you're not supposed to take it personally.

The last time I came upon this, I boldly proclaimed that the problem was Capitalism itself and that it all had to end. That was a fun thing to say at the time, but surprise, the simple weapon that will allow a member of the unwashed masses to take down a fully armored multi-national corporation from 100 yards away hasn't yet occurred to me. Yet I still really want to know what the answer to this is--how do you return some humanity to this system which governs all of these basic human interactions? Getting a loan, being hurried through signing form after form with only a dim idea of what we were signing, making offers on houses, changing our minds about making offers on houses, firing our real-estate agent because of our discomfort with him on that same human level--because I couldn't not take them personally, all of these things made me feel like I was A Bad Person. And I'm pretty sure I'm not.

A Shout-Out to My Peeps

An article on one of our favorite topics, the ill use of the word literally.

We used to joke about how one day, the dictionary entry for this word would look something like this:
  • literally lit·er·al·ly adv.: figuratively.

It turns out it's almost already happened.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Gaining My Religion

Though I'm never one to pass up another occasion to laugh at Sam, his post-U2 concert fervor reminds me of something I've wanted to blog about for awhile: the religious experience. What is it? And how much does it actually have to do with religion?

It is the considered opinion of Thea, my erstwhile acupuncturist, mentor, and friend, that U2 are in fact exactly what Sam claims--not just a band, but a conduit to a preternaturally transcendant experience (this is doubly notable because Thea is not at all the kind of person you think of when you think, "U2 fan." Then, neither is Sam). No qualifiers or hedging needed: Bono is transmitting the universe, or god, or whatever your favorite word is, from a form that you cannot comprehend or experience into a form that you can. If that's not a religious experience, nothing is.

I think, moreover, that you're having this kind of experience, to a greater or lesser extent, every time you get lost reading a good book, watching film or t.v., or pretty much any time you "lose yourself." That's supposed to be what religious enlightenment feels like, isn't it--the loss of ego to some sense of ecstasy, no self consciousness, just joy? Having the ability to take someone out of themselves with narrative or art is a shamanic skill--most people I know simply couldn't invoke the kind of energy, e.g., to fill an amphitheater no matter how many lights, sound effects, tv screens, microphones, and guitar effects you gave them.

L. said that she never understood Catholicism as a religion until she stepped into a church in Rome. Seeing the art and the sculpture and the gold leaf and the stained glass, she realized what it must have been like hundreds of years ago when life was constantly cramped, dark, and smelly, and then one day you walked into one of these enormous, ornate, echoing light-filled temples. You really would experience god.

For me there's a certain pattern to it. As L. also noted a long time ago, experiencing really good narrative is a lot like falling in love. While you're in it, you just want more, because it's pulling you along, telling you the answers you've always wanted to know to the questions you never knew you wanted to ask. You can't wait for the next episode, or chapter, or tomorrow, to arrive.

Slow News Day

Here's our deep thought from Sunday brunch: one learns in 5th grade that the image of the outside world that ones brain receives from the optic nerve is inverted. The light that comes from the plane above eye level passes through the lens and is reflected onto the bottom of the optic nerve, and the light that comes from the below that plane is reflected onto the top. The reason we know it's not the optic nerve or its connectors that switch bottom to top is illustrated by the film I saw in the same 5th grade science cycle. They took a guy and put this apparatus over his eyes that switched the image he saw with a couple of mirrors--what was being fed to his eyes was already upside down. He wore the device continuously, and a week or two later, his brain adjusted and he started seeing right side up again. They showed him riding a motorcycle to prove that he could see okay. Question: Did his brain just undo the flip that it normally does, or did it flip the image again? Is there any physiological difference between these two things? Sub-question: Why hasn't someone released all of those fifth grade science films from the 1950's on DVD? First, they rocked. Second, it would prove that I wasn't crazy, since nobody seems to have seen this particular film except me.

Anyway, this all struck my ten-year-old brain as impossible. On the one hand, the dude could ride a motorcycle, and that's pretty compelling evidence. On the other hand, it seemed to ten-year-old me that you see from your eyes, not your brain. I didn't even buy that the image from my eyes was somehow upside down in the first place. I mean, I was looking right at it. I could see that it wasn't upside down.

So here's the deep thought. If your brain does something as dramatic as invert the image your eyes receive before you actually "see" it, what the hell else is it doing? What's being received that you don't see? What's not being received that you do?

(Editor's Note: this post markedly more interesting if you are stoned.)

Monday, October 24, 2005


From a paper on Pride and Prejudice, written by a college student, somewhere in America:

"This shows that, though the marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy is the ideal match, it only happens one sixth of the time."

(Yes, he or she counted the number of marriages that take place in the novel).

I just love that on so many levels.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

One Blog A Second's a stat in the Harper's Index™ this month: "Average number of new blogs created each second: 1." Which just goes to show you (and by "you", I mean "me"), you're not nearly as unique as you thought. For those of you playing along at home that's 3600 blogs an hour, 86,400 blogs a day, 604,800 blogs a week, 31,536,000 blogs a year. A large percentage of these must be these bot-created spam blogs that seem to exist only to create Google hits (which, frankly, I can't figure out--it seems like the easiest thing in the world for search engines to weed out. Clearly I'm missing something). Another large percentage has got to be people who say to themselves, "hey, I'll start a blog, that'll be keen," write one entry, and never come back to it. But even if only one out of every ten blogs is actually somebody writing his or her (or its) thoughts on any sort of regular basis...well, you do the math.

I talked before about how, given a large demographic sample, you can make acurate behavioral predictions that are impossible to make about an individual in that group. I started a blog for a reason that, I imagine, is relatively atypical (though given 31 MILLION blogs a year, if only one in a thousand blogs are started as a project for school, I've got a lot of company anyway). After I'd been doing it for a month or two, I discovered a bunch of my friends were also blogging, and I sort of joined their club, and modified the things I blogged about, and so on. In other words, from the perspective of my little brain, the reasons I write a blog are rather nuanced and complex and seemingly unique. From the perspective of, e.g., the dude who compiles Harper's Index™, the fact that I write a blog is neither remarkable nor particularly surprising.

All this is by way of making an "it's a map, not the territory," argument. I can predict, for instance, that if you're reading this right now that you either, a) own an iPod, or b) are married to me. Well, I'm right, aren't I? And yet it's a strangely unimpressive inference. It's factually true, yet says almost nothing about the incredibly complex process that went into you deciding to (circle one) buy an iPod/marry me (if you're reading this blog and you neither own an iPod nor are married to me, well, who the heck are you? Leave me a comment or something). The model of the universe in which you are merely the sum of your decisions and actions, in which you are an actor in some mass market or abstracted closed system, is a useful model for making generalized predictions about the behavior of you and others who are in some way, "like" you. And it's a model that says nothing about how you, blog reader and iPod owner/spouse, got where you are, where you're going, or what's going on in your little brain right now.

Harper's Index™ is a registered trademark. Oh yes it is.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Slow Foods

Mark, of bachelor party fame, now reads this blog from time to time, so in the theme of writing letters to people via blogging, this missive is about something he brought up the other night. He and Adrienne just returned from their honeymoon in Italy last Friday. That is to say that she returned last Friday. Mark lost his passport and had to wander the streets of Milan, and then Copenhagen, for two days while waiting for a replacement passport (nobody who knows Mark is remotely surprised by this story. Such things are part of Mark's Essential Nature. Mark has fully accepted this part of his essence; when it pops up, he nods to it by saying, "Don't worry, baby. You're on the Cooper Train." Being on the Cooper Train means that something is about to go very, very not-as-planned).

They had us over on Tuesday for a post-wedding fiesta, during which we did absolutely nothing for four hours but cook and then sit around and eat. It was a four course meal wherein each courses had multiple sub-courses, and between each course were small breaks wherein we stopped to prepare the next thing we were going to eat, and also did some digesting. During the course (ha!) of all this, Mark brought up the Slow Food Movement, whose stated goal is to preserve food and the culture that goes with eating from, well, modern life.

I try to avoid, on principal, diatribes about how modern life is bad, because it really, really isn't. Modern life is pretty freaking awesome--not for everyone, obviously, and it should not be inferred that I'm advocating complacency because things are okay for you in particular. I just think there aren't many major truths that can be divined from statements that start "'X' ain't as good as it used to be" (or, frankly, the contrapuntal, "The advent of 'Y', will surely foment a revolution that creates a new utopia for all Mankind!" That really hasn't been true of much since the printing press, and even then, it's not like it ended war or world hunger). (As to the invention of the internet, see: printing press, the). And, I don't think that the rather unhealthy relationship we (very broadly speaking) have with food these days, about which I'm going to talk briefly in the next paragraph without making any definitive argument on the subject, doesn't have as much to do with "modern life," whatever one takes that to mean, as we probably generally think it does.

Jesus H. Ted, I use a lot of words.

It's no particular secret we're obese as a population, and it's no particular secret that there seems to be a fair causal relationship between that and the fact that we eat processed foods in large quantities and in short amounts of time. I think another problem, as I've mentioned before, is how far removed we've become from the process of actually acquiring and preparing our food. The only next logical step is to remove us from the actual eating of it, and I offer this, a breakfast item they sell in the cafeteria at my work, as evidence that this particular inconvenience is being worked out as well. Again, I'm not arguing for the return of The Golden Age of Sustinance Farming here, I'm arguing that removing ourselves from the actual process of gathering, preparing, and eating your food is actually tangibly harming our health. I'm not saying you gotta go out and hunt the stuff (though bully for you if you do), but I do think you have to pay attention. And jeez, might as well enjoy it too, while you're at it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Meta-Letter To Greg

Another reason I started this blog, besides the ostensible reasons, was to collect my thoughts on a particular subject. It's not clear what the particular subject is, something about why I'm pursuing a career in acupuncture and what I think it's all about, or whatever. One of the assigned texts for my first year in school was called Essential Spirituality, it's a 250-odd page book with a thesis that can be summarized thusly: Surveying the world's major religions (which the author selects for us, though no suprises amongst them either), one discovers they have some essential tenets in common. His argument is that you can infer from this how you should approach your spiritual life.

I thought that this book was highly dumb, because a) it should have been about ten pages long, and b) Okay, so one should chill out, treat everybody how one wants to be treated, and get rid of ones material attachments. Sattva enlightenment ensues. That's not so much the question. The question is how you do those things. It's not that this book is without advice on the subject, it's just that the advice looks like this:

Relax. Take deep breaths. Meditate. Empty your mind. Focus on loving kindness for all living things.*

*Offer valid only if you are upper middle class, pretty much don't do anything with your day, and don't have to spend time worrying about anything, such as money, food, a daily commute, buying or selling anything, politics, the environment, religious fundamentalism, the state of the world in general, or coming into contact with anyone who might, say, not want to focus on loving kindness for some reason. Offer not valid in territories, protectorates, the Continental U.S., Europe, Capitalist Nations, Socialist Nations, Communist Nations, or countries or collectives bound by laws or communal social contracts of any kind. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball. Attempting to achieve inner peace may cause passers-by to gawk and small children to poke at you with sticks. In the vast wide history of time, enlightenment has only been achieved by a couple of people sitting under trees three thousand years ago and some dude the Romans ended up nailing to a cross, so good luck with that.

Anyway, I thought: you know what, I could write this book. Only I could write it such that it was, a) actually useful, and b) entertaining enough that people would want to read it. I bring all of this up...(this sentence, or ones like it, now litering the discourse among the Three Weblogs of The Apocolypse)...because of Stonesthrow's last post about doing...stuff...with/in your life. I, too, tend to be an incredibly lazy ass, most of the time. Or that's my perception of myself, and probably everybody feels this way at least some of the time--the sensation that one should be doing 'x', but is not doing 'x', and instead playing solitare on the computer (or maybe that is just me).

One of the theses of this imaginary book I'm at least pretending to write is that I tend to think this phenomenon is some sort of a denial of ones true and essential self. If, for instance, you smoked and really, in the true and essential sense, wanted to quit, you would just do it. I don't mean to say that if you can't quit smoking you're weak-willed or nothing (there is that thing about nicotine being as physically addictive as heroin and all), more that your true and essential self really wants a goddamn cigarette, and that's the thing that needs to be addressed (if I can get a functional way to help quit smoking, or turn off the tv and instead paint your house, based on this idea, then I'll really have something). Greg pretty much sums this up, in the context of writing, when he says, "...I decided that I was just a procrastinating writer, and to suck up and deal, (but) I am perhaps too willingly accepting this."

I've thought about writing some sort of long narrative (many people are just referring to this concept as a 'book' these days) for years, basically since college, and every time I sat down to try it, I found I just couldn't make myself write. I thought for a long time I didn't like writing, but in fact I like writing a lot--e.g. I used to write letters with an obsessive focus. On the other hand, it turns out that I like blogging, it seems to be something I want to do, so I've tricked myself into writing this way. Or, in the above-described model, I've discovered a particular thing about my essential writing-self and I'm trying to work with it.

One can make onesself do things one doesn't really want to do. Sometimes one has to do this, but on the other hand, it sure isn't fun, and one surely is miserable while it's going on. So you: want to quit smoking/can't get yourself to write/don't want to paint the house/get off your ass and make the world a better place/etc. That seems to be step one. Step two is recognizing that an essential part of yourself needs nicotine or doesn't like painting or whatever. It's not that I don't believe in laziness, I believe that laziness is a symptom of trying to make onesself do something one doesn't want to do, or doing it in a way that one doesn't want to do it. I don't have step three formulated yet. I'm working on it though, because goddammit Greg, you've got to quit smoking.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Take Your Dog To Work Day

The oft-referenced unnamed e-commerce giant for whom I work has a couple of odd holdovers from its days as a startup. One is that we all work on "door-desks", which are fashioned from a birchwood door you might buy at a hardware store, four two-by-twos, and some corner braces (and which, when our founder famously built them by hand when the business was headquartered in his garage, were surely cheaper that buying office supply desks. Now that we've got 50,000 of them, I imagine they aren't). Another is that they allow dogs in the main corporate offices, so on every floor of the Pacific Medical Building in Seattle, there are four or five dogs roaming the halls.

We are the proud owners of a very intelligent, very neurotic border collie (the fact that she knows the word "neurotic" about sums it up) named Calli, and until Friday, I'd never brought her in to work, reasoning that she doesn't play well with other dogs, and likes people a little bit too much (so much so that she'll readily jump up on somebody who appears like they might pay her some attention). Also, not everybody likes dogs, and even if it's already part of the corporate environment, you never want to add to the annoyance of someone who's already having to suffer the hostility of a dog-ridden place of employment.

Unfortunately, the "Not Everybody" who likes dogs has lately included the people who live in our building, who have started complaining to us that she's barking all the time when we're not there, and since we're never ever ever ever going to find a house, it seemed like a good idea not to anger them all. With me working and L. teaching full time, Calli was spending a lot of the weekday alone, so on Friday I brought her in to the office for the first time, with not a little trepidation that she might freak out in a new environment. She is, after all, almost completely neurotic.

I believe about dogs the same thing I believe about very small children, which is that they are pretty much reflections of the energy (substitute for "energy" your favorite word that encapsulates the concept I'm about to outline) that's in their environment, filtered through their own dogness, or small-child-ness (actually, I believe that about people, too, it's just that dogs and small children don't have spoken language, and that makes the phenomenon more interesting). (Okay, what am I saying, I believe this about everything, animate and not: a topic for a future post, no doubt). A barking dog is reflecting stress in its environment, a crying child reflecting sadness in his or hers. You could argue that the dog is barking because the dog is stressed, the child is crying because it is sad (or hungry, or whatever), but like the Buddhists and a fair share of philosophers, I argue that such an isolated self doesn't exist (or, I should say, this model is less illuminating), that there is no barrier that distinguishes between the self and the non-self, just one long slippery slope (again, post for another time). And it's funny, but I think being a dog owner is the thing that solidified this concept in my mind.

Calvino: Whoa! Hold on there. Are you about to make some point about how your dog is some essential and inextractable part of your own self?

The Stoat: Well, actually, this was supposed to be a post about how Calli came to work and was an incredibly good dog and everyone loved her. But it, like everything else that ever appears in this blog, has devolved into a mass of Existentia. Anyway, yes, I would make that point.

Calvino: This is your dog you're talking about, right? Your pet. The thing that obsessively fetches tennis balls and is terrified of bugs?

The Stoat: And spends hours lying on the floor, idly chewing on her own paws, yes. That dog.

Calvino: You are one weird dude. And I'm pretty sure "Existentia" isn't a word.

The Stoat: Whatever. Language doesn't work that way.

I don't know if I meant this entry to be a Chicken-Soup-For-The-Soul, Lessons-Our-Dogs-Teach-Us story (as reflected through the Odds Are One's metaphor for being, whatever that is), but I brought the dog in on Friday, she met the other dogs and the other people and settled right in. She curls up on the floor or wanders through the halls into other people's offices (so that they can pet her, natch)--a coworker said to me, "You should bring her into work every day, it's so relaxing to have a dog just walk into your office. You can pet her for five minutes and then go back to what you were doing." I felt like a proud parent.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Please Welcome As-Yet-Unnamed-Male Teter

As of 9:17 p.m. P.S.T., I'm an uncle. No great accomplishment on my part, I realize. On the other hand, you're going along in your life, doot dee doot dee doo, and stuff happens and, sure, you get married and whatever and that changes things a little, but you're still basically the same person you were when you were fifteen and whatever, and then all of sudden, BAM!, your sister has a baby, and all of a sudden your dad is Grandpa George and your mom is Grandma Linda and you're Uncle Paul. And you're like, holy crap, Uncle Paul is that guy who has been married to Aunt Paulette since before I can remember, that's not me, but the universe is like, no dude, that's totally you now, this is what happens in life, things change and it's totally freaky.

Anyway, welcome to the world, small child. Be well and do good, and try not to be freaked out about how your mom is actually my little sister.

"...and talk about the weather."

One of the best-kept secrets (which I'm just about to blow) is that the summer in Seattle is unbelievably perfect. From about July to about today it's 75 degrees and sunny almost every day, it's never too hot, and there's daylight until 9:30 or 10:00, depending upon how far it's drifted from June 21st.

It's a very poorly concealed truth that it rains in Seattle all the rest of the year. It's a kind of thumpy, thick, slow, meandering rain, kind of like plodding in thick soled shoes slowly down the street to a job you hate, day after day. It does that pretty much constantly until, you know, April, starting from well, about today.

It was beautiful this week, sunny every day, warm out, and then this morning it was overcast and in the early afternoon the wind kicked up and blew out the sunny and the seventy degrees, not to be seen again until probably next summer. I was just out walking the dog and that rain had started falling. So that's it then.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Blogging For Letters

I used to write a lot of letters, the on-paper kind that got mailed and arrived in envelopes days later. I was the guy looking soulful in the back of the coffee shop in the late '90s who looked like he was journaling, except I was actually writing epistles, so it was okay, I was cool and not a dork. No, really. I don't do it much anymore, the reasons for which are many and varied, but that's not really the point of this entry. Well, maybe it sort of is.

L. and I sometimes still write each other letters, though we have lived in the same space for years. Mine are usually writ when I am on a plane trip somewhere, she sometimes just writes whilst I assume she is doing prep work for school. It's an ongoing narrative--when we were dating but living on opposite sides of the coast the narrative was about dual meanings of writing each other--both the act of sending letters and the act of creating the other person out of words, a liter(al/ary) conjuring act (God, that was soooo post-modern I can hardly stand it). The other person isn't there, so you write them. The other returns the favor by writing you.

L. wrote me a letter a few weeks back positing that this is exactly what I am doing when blogging, is writing letters. Sam and Rebecca have pretty much the same dialog going that L. and I do, only it is posted for all to see, the acknowledgement that they are writing each other only tacit. I haven't written either of them an actual physical letter in years, but we've been trading acknowledgements back and forth for a month or two now, never directly acknowledging that this is what we're doing, but a dialog goes on nonetheless. It's like having a conversation with someone at the next table in a restaurant by overhearing the conversation they're having, and then responding by having a conversation with the person with whom you're actually sitting.

Did I have a point here? Did I even have a thesis that wasn't borrowed from my wife? Apparently not.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On Language, Or Whatever

It's Tuesday night, I'm sifting through a bunch of thoughts, wondering where to go next, wondering if, in fact, I am a good blogger. I don't blog every day, my blog is really just a long stream of thoughts seemingly unconnected by any actual events that occur in my life, and I'm not really blogging about trees and flowers, which was, to review, the original assignment. So tonight, it's a couple of quick hitters.

  • I have a sort of quasi-mentor, Thea, who teaches at the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture in Hallandale Beach, Florida. She was also my practitioner in a past life. We've been trying, off and on, to establish a long distance mentor/mentee relationship and have never quite succeeded at it. She logged on and read my canoodlings some weeks ago and said, in response, "I can't read your blog thing. I slide off the slick surface...It's not my experience of you." This leads me to...

  • ...I am using a lot of words. One of the tenets of Five Element Acupucture is the Law Of Least Action--one should seek the treatment for a particular condition or imbalance that requires the fewest number of needles. The ultimate treatment is one perfect needle. And then no needles at all. And then no treatment. Words are the same. It's a tell-tale sign of my novitiate status that I can't get my point across in a sentence, or a paragraph, or even one endlessly prolix entry. I just keep on using words.

  • I am working my day job a lot lately. And kind of enjoying it. I'm kind of embarrassed about it, and kind of afraid to get attached to a job that I plan on abandoning, or that will abandon me in five years and get off-shored to India.

  • Ones life is, so the man says, the things that occur whilst one is making other plans, and there is a lot going by at the moment whilst we are making other plans, and I fear that I am missing it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Or Maybe I'm Just Naïve...

After two months looking we thought we'd finally found our house. Location, condition, yard, kitchen, space, character. It was vastly above the original price we'd intended to pay, but it seemed like it was worth it. However, if you want to buy a house in Seattle these days, especially in the price range where everybody else is buying, you have to get into a bidding war. After months of saying that was insanity and saying we weren't going to get involved in it, we decided, "This is our house, this is what it takes to get a house in this market, let's write the offer we think will take to get it." So the night before last, that's what we did.

Then the freak-out happened.

I bought the place we live now about five years ago, so I'm a little used to what happens to you when you sign away a ginormous amount of money for something, but this was different. We started to realize just how far above our original price we were, how much money the escalation clause on our offer left us open to paying, how we would be affected if L.'s teaching job didn't get renewed and she couldn't get another one. We thought: "Holy shit. We can't do this." Long story short, we called our agent the next morning--he wasn't, you know, happy with us, and he countered, why don't we submit the offer, but just take out the escalation clause--we probably won't get the house, but you never know. So we assented, certain that someone else would get this house, and frankly kind of relieved about it.

Yesterday afternoon, our agent called. The sellers thought our offer was really strong and if we would increase it $6000 dollars, we could get the house. Having originally thought the price of the house would get bid up 10% or more, this seemed great to us, and we said yes pretty much immediately. Our agent said great, called back the other agent...except, oh wait, somebody must have misunderstood, they weren't actually going to sell us the house for that price. It turns out what we did instead was trigger somebody else's escalation clause. We'd been played. Or rather, somebody else had been played--that buyer paid, as it turned out, $15,000 more for the house than they should have based on the offers the seller received--the sellers just used us as a pawn to do it.

L. and I are sitting here today have pretty mixed feelings about buying a house now, and after 24 hours of thinking we were just bad people because we didn't have the balls to get into a bidding war over a house, we are today thinking that, well, thank god we didn't have the balls to get into a bidding war over a house, because it seems an awful lot like that agent would have found a way to make us go to the top of our escalation clause. I am not Playa-Hatin' (said the whitest white man in the history of blogging) here. It was, based on the laws of markets and capitalism, absolutely the sellers' agent's job to get the best price she could for that house, both on behalf of her clients and herself. What I am doing is Hatin' on The Game. This is people's life savings, they are (nigh literally) mortgaging their future, and to squeeze more money out of them, as L. said yesterday afternoon, is just mean.

The Game is to get the best deal you possibly can--you want to get as much x for as little y as you can. You want the other guy to pay you as much y for as little x as you can give him. Nowadays, y is pretty much purely symbolic scrip, electronic tallies moving from one person's account to another. So perhaps it's my fault for attaching any value to it at all; an enlightened person would say, if it takes 15,000 more electronic tallies to make the seller happy, they should have them.

I'm not making an ethical judgement here either--maybe the other seller's escalator clause really did say, anybody makes an offer and we'll beat it by x dollars. Technically, we did make that offer. We made it because we thought we were actually buying the house for that money when we weren't, but we did make it. You could argue for hours about business ethics in this or any case, but I'm not arguing that. I'm arguing that it's mean. The Game rewards meanness, rewards you for taking advantage of someone who doesn't have all the information, or writes their business contracts with the incorrect legalese because they didn't have expensive enough lawyers, because they made "bad choices." You can argue all manner of ethics, fault, coulds and shoulds, choices and obligations. You can't argue that it's not mean.

So that's it. Enough. I'm giving my notice: I'm bringing down Capitalism. In the same way that Feudalism fell to the long bow, a small and simple invention is going to bring down the established social structure that governs how we relate to one another. I might know what that innovation is, and I might not. But Capitalism is going down.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

On Balance

I talked to Sam this morning--our intrepid friends at Second Americano have moved off to Wales to try their fortunes in the British higher education system. They've been there a week so far and it sounds as if it's working out pretty well for them. First off, Sam's teaching a number of hours, this year, that's so, so incredibly low the manufacturer won't allow him to print it. I'm not, no, sorry, my mistake, I am complaining. L. and I have been working without a break this weekend, at the same time worrying about whether we have a chance of buying this house we found, wondering, if we manage to even get this house we found (there's no guarantee, given the housing market in Seattle, Washington, that somebody won't bid the price up outrageously) what kind of income we'll be chained into earning, at the same time wondering what in the hell we are doing.

Chaitania, who runs the psychology program at my acupuncture school called last week wondering, well, where the heck I have been. I've missed two of the past four lab days, and haven't otherwise been around much. Between work and looking for a house, I've been spending the last two months doing a lot of things I don't really want to do. Two months ago I also got married, so really what I want to be doing all the time is hanging out with my wife. So acupuncture school is the thing I've let slide.

I'm a smart guy, I'll catch up. So this weekend will come and go and I'll write some papers and log back into work and figure out the coding problem that has been plaguing me all week. I'll get back on top of it and everything will be fine. That's not what troubles me.

One learns in life, or in my case in acupuncture school, that the entities upon which one focuses ones problems are just that and no more. They aren't the source of ones suffering, they are but its avatars. Another way of saying this is, "it will always be something." One might tell onesself that ones problems will vanish once one buys a house/finishes school/gets past the product launch at work/etc., but those things aren't really the source of ones troubled mind. The way you can tell that this is true is that new problems of similar nature pop up soon after you've defeated the avatar of your previous problem.

We aren't by any means miserable people. We are pretty damn comfortable and happy. As L. says, we have what we need and the rest is gravy. Anyway, today it's, "We can't buy a house and I can't keep up with everything, so I'm letting my schoolwork slide." I don't know what it will be when I've solved those problems. Or what I'll find when I stop attaching my stress in life to things that aren't really its cause.

Monday, September 12, 2005

My Day Job

I had this impassioned, overtly political post in re: conservatism as a doctrine and the resulting effect on humanity and then posing a hypothetical that what if it really isn't the government's job to help those whom the market doesn't favor, and even granting that maybe it really isn't good for the long term greater good to organize a welfare state, and maybe people really will just take advantage of it and never attempt to lift themselves out of poverty or need. Then I asked, can you, as a doctrinally conservative human being, really stomach the results? Because New Orleans is what the results of this philosophy look like. But then a bunch of other people wrote the same thing. And the point has pretty dramatically been made here this past week. So I decided to let it go. Almost.

Instead I thought I'd write about what I do for a living when I'm not studying acupuncture or musing about philosophical meta-modeling. A month or so ago I took a job in a different department of the unnamed E-commerce giant for whom I work. I kind of work in the abstract these days: I don't sell anything, buy anything, or process anything, I don't sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed (I'm not linking that one. You either recognize the quote or I don't want to know you). What I do is write code for a platform called "Web Services," which, they tell me, is on the cutting edge of the future of software and computing.

If you're not familiar with...well, the cutting edge of software and computing, it might be hard to grok what exactly it is I do. And I'm not going to try really to explain it, instead I'm going to make a comparison. Computing is like just about every other discipline in the world: it goes in cycles surrounding the creation of platforms and the building of things upon those platforms. In the 20th century, for instance, Albert Einstein and Max Planck kicked off a revolution with a new platform in which energy came in tiny packets instead of continuous quantities, and one frame of reference was equivalent and just as valid as any other, unless of course you were accelerating. Then a bunch of other physicists, using that platform, developed a whole bunch of new science, creating television, computers, and the atomic bomb. In the 70's. some government researchers created the ARPANET, and a decade and a half later a bunch of people realized they had an entirely new platform upon which to build...things: games, retail stores, meeting locations, news media, and so on. Web Services is (yet another) attempt to build a platform upon which things will be created and discoveries will be made.

Jos once wrote about a brief moment where he was sitting in a meeting at work and had a transcendent glimpse of the future. I was sitting in our quarterly department meeting a couple of weeks ago and the same thing happened to me. Again, it's kind of hard to explain the way that Web Services is abstracting the internet (because probably the internet already seems pretty abstract to you). But I'm here to tell you the following: the speed and age of the machine sitting on your desk or your lap is going to cease to matter in the relatively near future. Mechanical storage (CDROM, hard drives, flash drives, whatever) is going to cease to matter in the relatively near future (not that it hasn't already). Software applications are going to cease to be a thing that you go and buy, or even download. Whether you're aware of it or not, you already do an alarming amount of computing on computers that are sitting in a warehouse in Virginia, or downtown Singapore. So if you've been paying attention, you've noticed that this is happening already, and in five or ten years all that's going to matter is how much data you can get across a wire from your desk to that computer that's sitting in Virginia. Well, that, and how good an encryption algorithm you're using. You might want to try and get a good one.