Saturday, September 29, 2007


Do something good every day. Something so good that it actually makes you slightly uncomfortable.

The World Below My Feet

There was a time when I could
sense the immensity of the Earth. I could
feel it in my bones.

I remember on one particular occasion I
stared, dumfounded, through the empty night, at the moon.
I, whirling on the edge of the Earth at abstract speeds,
and the moon, standing at attention to the unseen Sun,
an unlikely pair, tonight
we are both so alone.

The Sun was scolding the Moon, while
I hid behind the Earth. My turn
would come in the morning, as
sure as the turning of the Earth.
Damned rotational inertia.
Why do the shadows recede?

Like all aspiring physicists,
for the moment I was able to ignore the air.
The Earth, with no atmosphere and my head
scraping the lower edge of space. I
wondered if it would make a mark there.

On this one particular occasion, I became
conscious of the world below my feet, and the
black empty ocean it swims in.

This world had never felt so
real, so mindless, so


if the Sun is a grapefruit in Boston,
Alpha Centauri is an eggplant in Reno—
so much empty space

has to be real,
something has to act.

Something has to produce the
note a jazz musician plays, some strange, spinning
concoction of emotion & chance, spilling energy & control

The molecules that make a man emote
slam the air that
carries the sounds to the
listener’s ear, shakes the listener’s heart
rattling its cup of change.

The solemn listeners nod, fill the room, which is
just a room, in a building, in a city,
on a continent, on a planet, churning lava within,
falling in tandem around a star,
born of a star, born of a star among stars,
born of an explosion that produced,
more than anything,
nothing at all—
at all.

Writing Drill: Random Poem Generator

Write a poem about (a/an) __________ (first thing that comes to mind)

1. weasel

Of Murder

You have stolen my chickens for the
last time, you bastard weasel. You
have no soul to hang your cap on,
you have no breath remaining.
Your sneaky habits while it’s raining
and chicken coop with blood a-staining,
it’s all over now, my friend.

Your face is frozen in one last sneaky smile,
a mocking grimace crowned with bear trap teeth, not even
death can beat your will, or make you frown.

I hate to taunt you, I hate to kill you
but, my friend, you’ve have had your fill
of dealing death about at will,
slipping down a window sill
just for that old-fashioned thrill
of murder.

There’s the difference—you and I
have no common motives.
I shrink when meeting death,
and you , my friend, you smile.

2. Bathymetry

Your sweet bathymetry

You have a nice bathymetry, my love,
I don’t need a satellite to know it.
Few realize that the seas will rise or fall
depending on what’s below it.
And although at times the waves will slap
the winds that suck and blow it,
I can see your wherewithall,
even though you never show it.

3. foccacia bread

Here we are, in the same old cafe
that we used to sit for hours,
sipping italian coffee and looking around
to see who was watching.

We used to chat about such incredible things,
the politics, the philosophy, the music, the answer
was in the air between our dancing words, though
we never cared to express it.

On our last night there, I consented
to a piece of foccacia bread that I munched
instead of finally telling you
that I loved you.

4. Dreams

How strange and telling
that the word we use
for our innermost wishes
and most important desires
is the same word that we use to name
the random nocturnal firing of neurons
studied in the laboratory for years,
analyzed by philosophers for centuries,
ignored or forgotten by millions each day...
what if I had written it down
instead of rolling back over
and hitting the alarm
one more time.

Lakatos & Feyerabend

Milk & fire,
Beethoven & Mozart
love & lust
trust, faith & regret

Not polar opposites, but just
different enough to really
dig each other.
Like sodium & chlorine
no one can really explain
why they come together-

they've no business doing so, but
still they do.
Electrically they're neutral
But there's something about each one
that the other finds so
dangerous, so preposterous, so ridiculous
that they each move in to take a closer look.

Keep your friends close,
and your enemies

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cheese & Whiskey

In Frisian, a language spoken in certain unforgiving regions of the Netherlands, the word for 'cheese' is tsiis, pronounced “cheese”. They say this when smiling for a photograph, just like we do in America. I can’t imagine the two regions happened upon this usage independently; one must have influenced the other (or perhaps both emerged from a common source). A more clear case of the spreading of cheese (sorry, bad pun) is in Japan, where it translates to saying “cheesu” for photographs.

The astute reader will realize that the whole point of saying “cheese” for a photo is because it makes you smile. The Japanese, in adopting this ritual, destroy its point; when you say “cheesu” you spend more time going “oo” than “ee”, thereby greatly increasing the chances of looking like an idiot in the picture. This is an example of a strange loop.

A strange loop is something that, through self-reference, destroys its own meaning. For example, take a look at the GIF of the reproduction of the painting of the pipe on the right there. It’s by Magritte who, being French, was very strange indeed (just kidding, all my French readers…Vive le croissant!). The caption says “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This translates to “This is not a pipe.” On the one hand, you say “What the hell is it then?!” On the other hand, you say “Of course it’s not a pipe…it’s just a representation of a pipe…it’s just blobs of ink on a canvas, and has no inherent meaning.” The kicker is, once you see it that way, you also must agree that the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is not really saying “This is not a pipe,” but rather is just more meaningless blobs of paint on the page. So, realizing the true meaning of the phrase destroys its meaning. That’s a strange loop.

The most important of all strange loops, perhaps, is Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The basic idea is that Kurt Godel used mathematics to prove that mathematics is either incomplete, or inconsistent. If it’s incomplete, then there are true math equations you can never derive by using math. If math is inconsistent, then there are false mathematical equations that you can actually derive using math consistently. Either way we’re screwed.

Here are some more examples of strange loops:
· Catch 22
· Russell’s paradox
· Throwing out the baby with the bathwater
· Sprint Wireless customer service

There is hope for the portrait photographers of Japan, thanks in part to my dad (Hi Dad!!). There is a grassroots movement to change the word that people say during photographs over there to “Whiskey”. I should have guessed that these confounding strange loop things could be solved by whiskey. I submit, however, that it should be changed to “beer”. Beer makes you smile more, after all. AND, the great philosopher Homer (Simpson) has already taught us that beer is “the cause and solution to all life’s problems”. Oh damn, that’s another strange loop!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Poetry Writing Drills--Suite #1: Get Things Flowing

This is something I put together I while back and just found...sort of advice I wrote for myself about writing. I thought it would be cool if anyone wants to give the drills a shot. Feel free to try them and post any interesting results as a comment...

Get Things Flowing--Writing is about feelings. It is about capturing how you feel about certain persons, places, things, or ideas. These subjects could be out there in the world, in the world you create, or they could be so deep inside you that you almost forget they’re there. The feelings you describe could be the essence of your personality, or they could surprise you when they come out. Or they could be made up because they sound nice, but I think the best writing comes from real feelings. But feelings come from the heart, not the head, in a sense. If you have to think about something, it becomes a thought, not a feeling.

For that reason, you should at least start off by writing quickly, before you have to time to think about the words coming out. You want to start by getting the pure feelings out there as the canvas, and then use your mind to revise and organize in a way that best presents them. As Forrester says in that cheesy movie, “Write with your heart, revise with your head.”

These drills are designed to practice getting the feelings flowing. Later you will practice controlling the rhythm and the form, but for now don’t worry about these things. The idea is to do these drills quickly, stream of consciousness. Whatever pops up, write it down without hesitation. They may come out as word associations, but whatever. The point is to get the channels open for traffic.

1. Quickly write down your 10 greatest and deepest fears

2. Quickly write down your 10 greatest fantasies

3. Quickly write down 3 things you hope nobody knows about you

4. Quickly write down 4 things you wish people knew about you

5. Quickly write down the names of 5 people you find to be the most interesting.

6. Write a poem about at least one thing mentioned above.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Does Everything Happen for a Reason, or a Purpose?

What is the question?
This is an important question…perhaps the important question…and boy, is it a doosy. But that’s what makes it so much fun to think about…

First I would like to clarify some terminology here. I think that when people ask the question, they really mean ‘Does everything happen for a purpose?’ which is a religious or spiritual question. Whether or not everything happens for a reason, on the other hand, seems to be more of a question for science or philosophy. Both are interesting, important questions. Perhaps they are connected somehow, but for now I would like to consider them separately.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
As an aspiring scientist with a realist and perhaps coherentist epistemology, I would like to think that the answer to that is yes. In fact, I would like to think of science as the search for explanation—the search for reasons. Why did the apple fall from the tree? For Newton, the reason was the force of gravity (working in tandem perhaps with the wind to knock it loose). For Einstein, the reason was the curvature of spacetime. In many cases, the art of physics seems to be the art of creatively finding the reasons that things happen in the physical world. Given the laws of physics and the initial conditions, the apple was bound to fall. A physicist gets paid to search either for the laws or for the initial conditions (or a little of both). When they have both, they have found an explanation to the natural phenomenon.

Are you sure??
This view that everything happens for a reason, which I hold dearly, has some serious challenges. I cannot respond to all of them, which scares me. There are two main branches of physics that challenge the proposition in different ways—one attacks our knowledge of the initial conditions, the other of the very laws themselves.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955), (attributed)

Chaos theory threatens our ability to find the reasons behind things. ‘Chaos’ is defined in physics-ese as an extremely sensitive dependence on the initial conditions…therefore, for some things (like the weather & the stock market) we can never do the same thing over and over to test whether we have found the reasons behind it. However, there are patterns among the chaos that allow us to test them slightly more holistically; hence the ‘theory’ part of chaos theory.

Quantum mechanics presents us with a much more serious threat to believing things happen for a reason. In quantum mechanics, we can do the exact same things over and over, and the results are always different! All we can do sometimes is give the probabilities of an electron taking a certain path, and it is the probabilities that follow strict laws & equations. Take nuclear decay (please!). We can never predict exactly when a uranium atom will decay, but we can tell that it will have a really good chance of decaying after a certain time. Put another way, there is no reason for it to decay at any particular time. Einstein didn’t like quantum mechanics for this reason (among others), and famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Well, Alby, I hate to say it but it seems like you were wrong about this one! Perhaps the most troubling aspect is when you realize that our everyday world is composed of these inherently random particles that do not obey simple cause and effect.

I have a hope, however, that reasons can emerge out of these little things that don’t abide by reason. For example, you are built out of about 10 trillion cells; each cell is its own living organism, but none of them are ‘you.’ None of them even know who ‘you’ are! It is through their myriad ‘you-less’ interactions that you emerge (fortunately for you). Likewise, perhaps everything in our macroscopic, everyday world can still happen for a reason, even though our everyday world is built out of a strange, reasonless quantum world. That’s my two cents, anyway.

Does everything happen for a purpose?
Like the previous question, I’m very conflicted on this. On the one hand, I want to answer with an emphatic “yes!” I feel it in my bones. It certainly seems like life is taking me on some sort of path…there seems to be some sort of grand plan. One of my first major results of grad school was proving that god exists…I proved this by finding a Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to school;)

On the other hand, and more seriously, I want to scream “NO!!” when I think about things like the Holocaust and senseless murder. What could possibly be the purpose behind such things?? I tend to think that no moral god could ever condone such atrocities, let alone build them right into His/Her plan.

Clearly, I have no qualifications to answer this question. It may be the biggest one of all. But you may like to hear the solution that sticks to my ribs these days. I think it may be sort of the opposite of emergence (‘de-mergence?’). On a large scale, there is no such thing as a grand plan. But on an individual level, it makes a lot of sense. It may be like being in love: by believing it, you make it true. In my mind, this does not belittle the notion of ‘purpose’ in the least. It makes it more real than anything.