A quote from Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons that I cannot get out of my mind. For me, it is relevant in the context of continuing to be optimistic that we can construct a sustainable civilization, even though the current Plan of Record is clearly to burn it all:
I decided that many of Bear’s stories and comments shared a general drift. They advised against fearing all of creation. But not because it is always benign, for it is not. It will, with certainty, consume us all. We are made to be destroyed. We are kindling for the fire, and our lives will stand as naught against the onrush of time. Bear’s position, if I understood it, was that refusal to fear these general terms of existence is an honorable act of defiance.
Bear is a Cherokee chief that adopts Will, a bound boy working in a frontier trading post. They spend winters alone together in a kind of meditative semi-hibernation with a small crackling fire in a tiny snow-covered lodge.
I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren’t any folk societies for us anymore. (Kurt Vonnegut)
Wolfgang Pauli apparently once said of a student’s work: “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.”, to deride it for being unfalsifiable. Grad school isn’t quite that bad. We’re all running the experiment together every day. We can tell whether or not it’s working, at least in theory. But only if we’re willing to look. I’m looking; I say it’s not working, at least not for graduate students, not on average (mean or median, pick your poison).
Continue reading What’s (socially) wrong with graduate school?
Science is a strange kind of reality worship. We want to know what really is, out there in the physical world, independent of the vagaries of our internal experience. We try to find what’s true for everyone, all the time. It’s easy for me to forget that there are some contexts in which what is actually happening, in a measurable sense, is not what matters most. Sometimes, it hardly seems to matter at all. Corporate PR hacks, religious proselytizers and other propagandists understand this intuitively. If you tell people a story they want to believe, often they will go ahead and believe it, regardless of any countervailing evidence. They will thank Big Brother for increasing the chocolate ration from 30 grams to 20 grams per week. But this kind of disconnection of external from internal reality isn’t always sinister. Sometimes it isn’t even a disconnection so much as it is an orthogonality. Disconnection suggests that the two were once connected, or are intended to be one, but our internal experience is just not the same thing as external reality. They are related, but separated, by warm vitreous pools of light and hairy waveguides. There is some part of us which is intrinsic, or such a distant and distorted echo of the outside world as to be unrecognizable.
Continue reading Experimental vs. Experiential Truth
I feel the way I did that morning in the hostel in Juneau, when Becky and I were starting our kayaking trip in Alaska in May of the year 2000, almost exactly 10 years ago. I feel that way, but on a different time scale. I woke up in the bunk, and didn’t know where I was. I’m sure that feeling has a name, but I don’t know what it is. I was temporarily misplaced. The most recent bits of history, which had gotten me there, were lost in my mind somewhere. An episode of micro-amnesia. Where am I? And then in a wrenching mental gyration, it all comes back. Like looking at a map and a compass, and suddenly realizing you’ve gotten turned around. It’s not that peak, it’s this one. That means we’re here, not there. And fuck, we’re out of water too. Now what?
Continue reading Waking up lost
Two days ago I was leaning towards California’s Area of Bays, but now I’m on the other side of the Rockies. Trying to imagine, what would I do out there? How would I get to know people? Who would I meet? And even just looking at the organizations I know about already, I’m finding it’s pretty hard to imagine not making friends in Boulder. Again. I think part of me has been resistant to the idea, because it reeks of the path of least resistance. Somehow it feels like running back to Caltech when I don’t know what to do next, and that has historically resulted in a lot of psychological trauma. As the saying goes… “Never again”. But moving to Boulder was much more intentional than coming to Caltech the first time around. I tried to put my head in Boulder last night. I tried to imagine, what would I be doing now, if I were there? How would I meet people? The main strength that the Bay Area has in my mind is that there are more people there that I know than in Boulder, and that all else being equal, it’s likely that that will continue to be the case going forward, as it seems to be a fairly deep potential well for the types of folks that have passed through my life. It’s a bigger place too, in terms of people and economy. It would have more variety in both. More opportunity. But at what expense? And is more really better in this context? Living there is much more expensive (incredibly… since Boulder isn’t exactly cheap). The wilderness is harder to get to by bike. I love the idea of cities but for historical reasons, I am a creature of town and country. There are other paths I might have taken that would have led me to large urban centers, but it’s unclear whether it’s worth my exploring those paths at this point.
I need a sense of community, and a local culture I can feel a part of. I need some strategic long term flexibility in job opportunities. I need wilderness. I need a place that loves bicycles. I need some social seed crystals.
I’d been thinking that I’d float for the summer, traveling and visiting, but without any real roots. Without making a choice. And then in the fall, figure out where to go. But now I’m not so sure that’s the best way to go. Maybe instead it makes sense to go to a place and float there. Tread water, and see how it feels. This would put these summer months to good use. Still enjoyable, but with the deeper purpose of getting to know the place and the people. Or getting to know them again. Backpacking and bike riding. Potlucks and parties. Social networking for fun and profit.
And so it was that I re-acquainted myself with Community Cycles, which is a kind of combination Bike Oven and CICLE, rolled into one. I was especially moved by this wonderful five minute vignette:
It seems almost too good to be true. A town cris-crossed by bike paths, with a multi branch bike culture organization that is apparently thriving and growing and able to support itself financially? That has an aggressively understanding DoT (compared to some places we could name). How could I not work with them?
Continue reading Boulderward?
I’m an emphatically utilitarian cyclist. My bike is my only ride. It is my way of going. It is point A to point B with a pile of stuff. But that’s not all it is, and sometimes I forget.
I started biking 20 years ago when I was 14 and living in Japan as an exchange student. It was how everyone got to school. Every morning was a flood of blue wool uniforms on classic bikes going clickety-click and ding-ding. Baskets, fenders, and not much in the way of gears. So it was utilitarian there too, but I also used my bike as an anti-depressant. I didn’t speak Japanese when I got there. My family didn’t speak English. All the other students were always busy with homework. I was lonely to the point of tears. Sometimes I’d ride around after school until dark. Sometimes beyond dark, in the rain and the wind. I discovered fireflies in a peace park one night. I let a typhoon blow me across the plain. I climbed hills and had crashes. It was a kind of love affair, it was something I could feel unabashedly good about, even if my host family thought I was crazy for staying out and getting drenched. It was deep rhythmic breathing and endorphins. It was still lonely, but at least I was focused. I felt free. When I came back to the US, I traded the circuitous hour and a half long school bus ride for an additional seventy nine minutes of sleep and an eleven minute bike ride each morning.
Continue reading We need more bicycles, less Zoloft™
Note: this was originally written May 14th, 6 weeks ago.
I thought I wouldn’t have to do this again. Not alone. Build a future from scratch. Carve it out of a big block of nothing. It felt so comfortable. So safe. At least there will always be Michelle. That’s what I thought. Now I’m moving out. She’s kicking me out. Get out. Get out of my life. Go away. Tyler doesn’t live here anymore!
I’m going to live in the front house for six weeks, and we’re going to try to get to know each other again. I feel like I’m a burden on her. An emotional liability to be written off if possible. Hazardous psychological material. Who would want to get to know me? And so the thought of going off again, into the world, to try and make a place for myself alone, seems impossible. But at the same time, it seems like that’s what she’s trying to get me to do. Think about being apart. Dream about it, and hope it’s not just a nightmare.
Continue reading Alone in the world again
Before I finished Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age in the Salt Lake City airport Monday, I found a book by Carl Sagan in the bookstore. “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”, based on his Gifford Lectures from 1985 (and published posthumously, in 2006 by Ann Druyan). I read half of it in the airport, and the other half last night. It went fast, because I’d heard it all before. The main piece of new information was that a decade and a half after the fact, Carl Sagan is truly dead to me. I’ve read most of his books, I’ve seen his television series Cosmos several times. I love his ideas; they’ve shaped me throughout my life, but I no longer hope to find anything new in them. So long as there were pieces of his mind that had been recorded, but that I hadn’t yet been exposed to, it was as if he wasn’t quite gone. He was still, from my point of view, a dynamic entity.
Continue reading Carl Sagan is Dead
Charter Communications, our local co-axial monopoly and recent bankruptee, sent a technician out to our house today, to hook up our new net connection. As is almost always the case, the tech was friendly, helpful and generally knowledgeable, in stark contrast to just about anybody you can ever get on the phone if you call the company. The customer service people are like robots. Sometimes, like robots with buggy firmware. They are, quite literally, running a program written by someone at Charter, codified in a choose-your-own-adventure style script booklet or web application. They seem to have no intrinsic knowledge of the business they work for, or the systems they are meant to support. Honestly, I wish Charter (and other such companies) would just put these resources on the web directly, so I can page through them on my own without having to be on hold first. They probably won’t do this, at least not in full, because one of the most important jobs this script/program does is to retain as much of their customer’s money as possible, whether or not they’re really supposed to have it, and to direct people into more lucrative service contracts, aggressively if need be.
Continue reading To Charter Communications: transparent bills get paid faster
I’ve been gone. Not just from Pasadena, but from the world at large, for at least six months. I can probably count the number of times I left Mike and Susan’s house in 3.5 months on two hands, or maybe three, but some of those were just hiking. I didn’t see much news. Thankfully I missed the entire healthcare debate. I didn’t spend time with other people. I was checked out. Now I’m starting to check back in, and of course things seem kind of surreal.
I went to a mall last Friday. The one by the Santa Anita racetrack. I went with Ian to see Avatar in IMAX-3D, and to get a little exercise. I’ve mostly been laying around trying to stop being sick for the past week. When we got there, the show had sold out, so we decided to walk around the mall — to literally circumambulate it, not walk around inside like shoppers — and decide whether we wanted to go to the next showing, and kill some time. It was bizarre. The whole place. I felt like an alien, first for having biked there (they have a giant valet-only parking lot), second for clearly not wearing culturally acceptable Friday-night-at-the-mall attire, and third for having a giant crazy-homeless-guy beard. The homogeneity of the people just seemed bizarre somehow. Lots of black and white clothing. Lots of text messaging. Lots of makeup and trying to look tough. The scene was so strange we decided to pee in the bushes in the parking lot rather than try and find a bathroom inside. Continue reading Checking back in with the world