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Friday, September 30, 2005


abbas kiarostami.
I saw "The Taste of Cherry", when, six months ago? Did I get it at the library? I suppose.
Here are two films. "Ten" is filmed in a car. In Tehran? I guess.
Mother and son. The mother has divorced her husband, telling a court that he was a drug adict. She tries to convice her son (I can't remember, 8 years old?) that she is right and to talk to him about her life. He is not interested. He doesn't understand her problems and understands this and that what she is telling him is inappropriate. They are both miserable in their own ways. I started with my sympathies with the boy. He seems to be less manipulative than the mother, trying to have direct conversations but to not be quite developed enough to take on this role. The mother didn't make much effort to speak in a way that took him into account, to change her way of speaking to respect his age and understanding of the world. This caused the boy visible discomfort and he was always ready to leave the car and was frequently covering his ears.

Then the boy is gone and we watch the mother drive around the city. She picks people up and gives them rides. An old woman going to pray at a temple. She seems more humble and grounded with these other people than with her son. They challenge her and she listens. She picks up a prostitute who is angry at first because she thought she was getting into a man's car. She lectures the prostitute on morality, but is asked to defend her own position in her marriage which she lies about, saying she is married. As the film progresses she sees her son a few more times, and we see a softening of their relationship, even though he still doesn't trust her and is ready to leave the car frequently. She decides to allow him to stay with his father. He looks happy. He tells his mother why the new woman his father is seeing is better than her. She seems amused by this. "She cooks more than one thing," he says. "Isn't it relieving that in the end, it all comes down to food?" she responds, and he is uncertain, seeming to gain a new respect for his mother.

The other film is the director driving around the roads where "Taste of Cherry" was filmed. He discusses "Ten". He talks about how one critic saw it as "violence against cinema". The fact that he uses so few camera angles and uses real people instead of actors disturbed this critic. He mentioned a certain quote by Nietzche twice: "That which is truly deep requires a mask."

He ended with a discussion of American cinema. He said his hunch was that it was more destructive than American military. He says that he is self-taught and therefore his teachings are not necesarilly connected to popular ideas or standard techniques. His friend once chastized him for "growing vegetables in a flower pot" instead of cultivating land. So he recommends that film students study American movies and understand why the formula works. He quoted someone as saying that all people have a Native American heart and in cinema one should use all the tricks at one's disposal to influence this heart. This is the secret to success of American movies. This last part seemed kind of sad. The practical words of someone who feels like what they really want to say (what he said in earlier parts of the film, perhaps) will be too dangerous because it will not be understood, and so it is better to give practical falsehoods that lead in a safer direction.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

virtual reality

I tried out this online game called "Second Life". I can't say I played it long enough to get a feel for it, and it was really slow on my computer. I was dragged into it after seeing todays installment of Rocket Boom in which a woman talks about how she has made a business designing and selling clothes in the virtual world, but can cash the money out and live on it in real life.

I remember going on a walk through Forest Park in Portland once with two friends and thinking about virtual reality. I wondered if some day I would live in a virtual world, and I found this pretty scary. How can one tell if one is in a real world or a virtual world? Well, in a virtual world, the rules are set by code. So even if all sorts of things dramatically improve, the world only contains the rules of the code that creates it. So, by doing science experiments, one can determine if one is in a real or virtual world. Anyway, that's a pretty academic concern and maybe not even all that well posed.

But what this clumsy, somewhat annoying half hour experience trying out Second Life reminded me of was how we make compromises and trade in things for rather sad replicas of them perhaps eventually forgetting what the original inspiration was. This is the negative aspect of technological evolution, huge expanses of uncontrolled wilderness get traded for city parks, the massively complicated social ecological structures of natural life get traded for zoos and botanical gardens. What these new acquisitions/creations have that their predecessors lack is controllability. We can predict, control and mold them to our desires/needs.

Now here's the stretch that I don't know if I can make clear. I'm reminded of a picture of physical laws described by Nancy Cartwright. Instead of laws, she thinks that there are things called "nomological machines". They are sort of set-ups which produce repeatable results. Good experiments. The point is that as we supposedly understand more about the natural world, we are also creating conditions such that it is understandable. And though this doesn't mean that we aren't gaining true knowledge of how the world works, we are making a value judgement to prefer the predictable to the unpredicable. But what may be lost in the process are those things that are not currently within our understanding. Thus it becomes crucial to learn all we can about whatever it is that is important to us. Because whatever cannot be put into the new language, whatever it may be, perhaps economics, or perhaps c++, will likely get destroyed. We may have loved the earth and the great mysteries and interacted with them and even based our lives around them, but only as such a high value is placed on controllability is there the new need to "understand" them, by mathematically modelling them.

Thus with virtual reality. We sacrafice reality for controllability. No, those trees don't really look like trees, but hey, we can move them wherever the hell we want, and change their color and all sorts of aspects of them. We've lost the wonderful complicated extremely unique, endlessly interesting trees and gained a pale replica which can be controlled. Perhaps with enough effort, someone can make something as interesting as a tree, but most won't. The ability to control the rule book which is so thrilling and fun for those who are masters at it, results in a net loss for others- a loss of those things that those specific rules are not so good for.

Anyway, we can all coexist I suppose. All these different worlds. One should just be careful to be aware of what is being lost at each step even though new things are being gained.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Looking for the incorruptible

I wrote the conclusion to my paper today, and this was a painful process to try to put ends on things, caps on ideas. Summarize a jungle by dividing it into regions and pointing out where the poisonous fruit is, where the paths lead, how to avoid quicksand and how to speak the language of the natives.

The shortening days and cooling weather brings back memories. Smells of Christmas and memories of long awkward silences and snow and dripping rain. Cold and dark. So I went to get more of that. I went to lie under some fir trees and walk around some paths and stare at the silouette of branches against the sky and see orange light and cool bright light through Maple trees. I needed to go because I knew that I wasn't ready for the memories that were trying to surface, and I needed some help. I needed to have the forest on my side, not sneaking up behind me reminding me of old visions of warmth and fragmented family. Because it was on my side before it was against me, and all I have to do is put in the time to regain my ally.

I saw bats flying and I lay down in this large circular indentation in the ground and tried to calm my mind and ground the dark feelings. I wondered why beauty and strength seemed so fragile usually and that to the extent I used them to regain my footing, they suffered. The branches against the sky seemed untouched by this problem, but it occurred to me that maybe its just like how we pull the earth towards us but nobody notices.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Stress and Decisions

It is so hard to think clearly about things when you are under pressure. I can do detail oriented work, but the higher level stuff just doesn't work.
Feeling emotionally out of whack. I was thinking I need a vacation, but couldn't think of anything/place I wanted to do/go. Always a bad sign.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Overcoat

I went to this ACT production of The Overcoat this afternoon.
Its like a ballet with desks, tables and beds. There are usually many of these objects on stage at a given time with anonymous movers spinning and mixing about the stage. There are also several levels of the action. Behind screens, elevated above the stage occur meetings, dancing, pining away, often not clearly related to the main action, but always related to the music. All the action is in sync with the music, and even the shuffling about often sounds like tap dancing adding punctuations.

I just read Gogol's short story here. Besides plot differences, there are also differences in tone and meaning. I had heard from somewhere that it was a story about a magic overcoat. This was somewhat true of the play, but not particularly true of the short story.
In the short story, overcoats are more personal, more about protection from the cold, showing the vulnerability against the harsh Russian elements. In the play, they had people moving in clumps holding onto a stick above them, emphasizing their interchangablility. Overcoats were metaphors for nameless workers in a bureaucracy.

Another interesting element to the play was how these movers of furniture always followed the main character around. It was as if they were his many selves. And they were unnoticed by other people who interacted with the main character.

Overall, I enjoyed it. It seemed like a very difficult piece to perform and it was amazing the amount of work that must have gone into it. If done badly, the whole thing would fall apart. I could imagine it as something that looks like a disaster until the final moment when all the finishing touches pull it together into a coherent sharp whole.

Friday, September 16, 2005


I still have to write the conclusion for this paper (along with other things) by tomorrow afternoon.
I added the section in the LaTex document. A big blank conclusion section.
I type in the words
"Its been a long hard road."
I delete them and head off to bed.

Monday, September 12, 2005

the case of the disappearing car

Who steals a car in Menlo Park? Especially an old Toyota Camry with a cracked windshield?

I had a hamburger and beer at the Dutch Goose before going to work this afternoon. I parked right behind the restaurant, next to a large brown SUV. The hamburger was good, jack cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomato. I gave the employee a small tip and he was very friendy, offering me extra napkins and warm hopes of a satisfying meal.

I walked out back and seeing no light blue Toyota Camry in the four spots, I wondered whether the beer or the physics was responsible for me forgetting where I had parked. Eventually I convinced myself that the car was gone. My key would not operate any of the vehicles in the neighborhood, and none of the cars had my backpack with my laptop with all the work I'd been doing recently, or my new CD player with the mp3 CD I'd made of recently acquired quite enjoyable music along with other treasured CDs. I wondered if I was supposed to be angry or sad and how I would feel when the beer and physics wore off. I wondered how much a taxi to San Francisco would cost and whether my bank account could absorb the various losses.

I asked some workers across the street if they'd seen the theft. They said they hadn't.
I wandered around front and looked up the phone number for the Menlo Park police. I'd recently been asked by a neighbor to call the San Francisco police about some mysterious items that had appeared in front of our house. And along with reading a blog with favorable reports of the demeanor of some of the New Orleans police, I was starting to think that perhaps police are good for more than intimidating people into living submissive lives without questioning inefficient and inhuman bureaucracies.

I got the number and was typing it into my cell phone when I went back to the scene of the crime so I could give a more accurate report. Something was differnt this time, though. There was a light blue Toyota Camry parked in the last parking spot. A teenager was eyeing me suspiciously as he sauntered off with his bike. And a Mexican employee of the Dutch Goose seemed trapped between interacting with the teenager and walking back up the stairs into the restaurant.

So here is the punch-line. The employee was borrowing the busboy's car to go pick up his daughter. But he took the wrong car! It seems that his key worked fine on my car which he demostrated to me by opening my locked door. He was quite apologetic and offered to buy me a beer the next time I was there. I happily retired the thoughts of doom and got ready to get some work done.

That's the story. The teen-ager and the workers across the street had no role except to see me, a tall skinny guy look confused but probably not make much of an effect on them. I also think of the teenage girl with the shaved head I saw climbing a tree next to the Java Beach cafe yesterday. She fell and hurt her leg and asked someone from the cafe to bandage her up. Probably didn't see me. I just seem to be more aware of all the people out there living their independent lives- lately I've been intereacting with them in such peripheral ways.

but will it sink?

the very frustrating thing about my life and the way I do research is the discrepancy between how hard I think of myself as working and how hard I really am. Even after all this time, in the midst of the most intense period of work, I am constantly feeling lazy, useless, and overly privileged. I know that I must be working hard because I wake up at 6 AM, pretty much frozen with thioughts about this paper. I get out of bed, go into the other room, and basically stare at the wall for half an hour before the freeze thaws and something resembling perspective starts to obtain once more. And out of the calm comes new space to think about this paper again. So I have plugged a hole. I worked yesterday and found the explicit forms for these coupling terms for the damping coefficients. I had sort of worked them out before, but now I added all the terms. Also I looked at the phases of the eigenvectors and chose them so that they reduce to simple expressions when the coupling is turned off. These were necessary, low level things to do. This is not the painting or varnishing of the boat. This is the putting of structural planks into place, ones which if they happened not to fit would render the whole thing quite shaky.
So, fine, this is my working style. Even at this late in the game, there are still major structural pieces to work on. I just wish that my internal rewards system and feelings of pride and self worth would be upadated corresponding to my real working style. Why should I feel so bad after finishing a good piece of work? Is this somehow emotionally necessary in order to get the work done? Or is it just a remnant of a view of work in which if you don't break a sweat or have something concrete to show for your efforts then it wasn't real work?
The result of this conflicting view is that there are also the opposite moments... moments when wonderful results seem to materialze out of thin air, when from a dirty pile of boards, a fleet of ships forms at the simple waving of a hand. But the good feelings from that don't last long for they are then followed by guilt... if its all so easy for me, then why haven't I done more, more, more, more.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

mt. sutro

slowly, slowly, finding the places that could make San Francisco feel like home to me. Many more of these cats roamed the paths.

into thin air

I just watched this movie about climbing Mt. Everest. 5 people die. A lot of wandering around in the snow, not being able to think very clearly.
Sometimes my research feels like this. Probably it means I should take a break. But sometimes doing the simplest things are so much effort. Getting the signs right in these perturbed eigenvectors and eigenvalues. Its a somewhat hard calculation. But I keep making mistakes. I fix them in some parts of the paper and not in others. Then I make new mistakes.
Yes, sometimes trying to make progress is like making a run for the peak... if you use too much energy on the way up, coming down can really fuck you up.