Sunday, September 07, 2008

Read it in the Strata

It always takes some time to get back into the groove after these fuck-it-all forays to Detroit. They are the truest vacations I know, and if ever I sincerely forget my work, it is there. Especially on longer trips like this last. I just about get to feeling back to normal, re-integrated in the scene and likely to turn up around your table on any given week night with no more ado than nods and handshakes. But then, as surely as alarm clocks wrench one from good dreams, I find myself lying confused and disappointed in the Boston sunrise coming through my familiar window; the trucks rumbling by below just like they always do.

I am starting to realize that I am living two lives, and that they are grossly incompatible. They are not Detroit and Boston; I’m not so malleable as all that. But they are certainly exemplified in their respective places, for any art must inevitably concede the will of raw materials. On one hand, I love human beings. I could build and justify an entire personal philosophy on the grounds of maximizing my interactions with good people. I want to sit around campfires and drink and smoke and laugh. I want to wake up in the sand, build spears and hurl bottles of rum into the inland sea. I want to yell and jump and beat makeshift drums. I want argue about your quirks and idiosyncrasies and marvel at our differences and then resolve them with laughter. I want all of this every day, and I want every rigid tick mark of calendar time to relax and dissolve into day and night.

On the other hand, I demand the solitude that wrings quantifiable progress out of every passing second. I can spend weeks and months in a cycle that’s strict and rigid and wrought with challenges, and it doesn’t rob of the human will to impulse and distraction, but brings it to the fore, teaches control, and makes life feel real and vibrant and raw. Life is capable of dealing extreme highs and lows, and by placing at regular and frequent interval the inevitability of exhaustion and stress, of pain and suffering, and the high probability failure and shame, you can achieve glory to put every intoxicant to shame. I want to read the books others cringe at and write the papers others couldn’t. I want to think hard and mutter and twitch until these abstractions take shape for me. I want to fight for the insights no number of hours will get you, but only the achievement of a new level of concentration. All this just to watch the respect and disdain brew unwillingly in the core of peers and superiors. I want to run and throw weights and release raw-throated and primal distress calls through the gym. I want to positively cower in the face of the tasks ahead of me, and then drive through them with mindless exertion, all because when I drop the last impossible weight, its clambering to the ground over my breathe speaks some epic fuck you to everyone and everything, and I mean it. This mode of life isn’t about people, it’s about me. It’s not about ego, but action. It’s about weakness seeping out in the sweat and the ink.

The merging of these two lifestyles seems to me impossible. Take any compromise between the two, any average behavior, and each philosophy is ruined. My solution has been (and this by no conscious planning of my own) to segregate them into distinct periods of time. I charge full speed at every test and trial for weeks, and then I forget it all, let the progress fade, and run off on great and irresponsible binges, enjoying whatever company I can find and relearning culture from only the most random and unexpected participants. And over time the dividing lines between these two have become darker and deeper, the transitions sharper, and the executions more extreme. I can’t help but wonder what I’m barreling towards here; what inevitable reckoning lies down this path. I may have found a passable solution to these dual urges of mine, but I’m more than a little unnerved by the fact that I am not converging toward anything stable, but fluctuating ever more wildly. Then again, I’d rather go down in flames than fade and atrophy in the middle ground.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Vessels of the Rock

“D.K. Belyaev and his colleagues took captive silver foxes, Vulpes vulpes, and set out systematically to breed for tameness. They succeeded, dramatically. By mating together the tamest individuals of each generation, Baylaev had, within 20 years, produced foxes that behaved like Border collies, actively seeking human company and wagging their tails when approached. That is not very surprising, although the speed with which it happened may be. Less expected were the by-products of selection for tameness. These genetically tamed foxes not only behaved like collies, they looked like collies. They grew black-and-white coats, with white face patches and muzzles. Instead of the characteristic pricked ears of a wild fox, they developed ‘lovable’ floppy ears. Their reproductive hormone balance changed, and they assumed the habit of breeding all the year round instead of in a breeding season. Probably associated with their lowered aggression, they were found to contain higher levels of the neurally active chemical serotonin. It took only 20 years to turn foxes into ‘dogs’ by artificial selection.”
-Dawkins, The Ancestors Tale.

My body has within it some tens of thousands of Carbon atoms. By all likelihood, there is somewhere in some vital organ, a single Carbon atom which was at a previous time of my mother, and yet before that of some leaf or piece of meat, and was still earlier a constituent of some vast geological formation. Even before that it was Helium or Hydrogen, forged into something wholly different in the unimaginable conditions of a star. And in a time yet to come, when the last x-thousand Carboned creature lies flat and dead on whatever wasted version of this globe proceeds, it will float for lonely millennia as stable atmospheric CO2. Of these things are Men made, and each is but a nexus of such histories.

I'm coming home in two weeks. Almost none of you have any idea how that feels.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Failure is a Must

This week I disproved the very premise of the work I’ve been doing for the past four months. It’s all bullshit, and now there will be no paper and likely no conference in Poland. The worst part is that in retrospect the problem is so obvious it hurts. I took the boss a one line proof that we both stared at in silence for several minutes, defeated, and then with shrug I get, “Well, there’s an ample supply of stupid. No getting around that. All we can do is try to tap into the scarce supply of smart.” Your average Ph.D. will admit that they could reproduce all of the work in their thesis in about 6 months time. The other three and a half years are devoted to figuring out exactly what work to do, and it’s a painful process of trial-and-error. I guess I’ve got four months of that done; could have been more.

Yesterday one of the campus bars closed down and there was a party to finish the kegs. I met some random crew of mechanical engineers who were over the top. These guys built a robot that mixes drinks in precise proportions and volumes, and wrote a program that uses machine learning techniques to invent new drinks based on people’s ratings of its previous efforts. They were drunks, every one of them, and they loved to sit around and elaborate on ridiculous ideas, like getting ransom from NASA on the threat of defacing historical moon landing sites. We’re to imagine a rover with a mounted feather duster poised delicately over Neil Armstrong’s footprints. For the first Friday in a long time I was entertained instead of entertaining and it was good.

Thanks to whoever found Babylon Circus. I daresay Au Marche Des Illusions is as good as Underdog World Strike.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


"The importance of this discovery for the development of the human mind lay in the fact that the earth, mankind, and the individual ego became dethroned. The earth became a satellite of the sun which carried around in space the peoples swarming on it. Similar planets of equal importance accompanied it, describing orbits about the sun. Man was no longer important in the universe, except to himself. None of these amazing facts arose from ordinary experience (such as the confirmation of a round earth by circumnavigation of the globe), but from observations which were, for the time in question, very delicate and subtle and from accurate calculations of planetary orbits. At any rate, the evidence was such as was neither accessible to all men nor of importance to everyday life. Visual evidence, intuitive perception, sacred and pagan tradition alike all spoke against the new doctrine. In place of the visible disk of the sun the new doctrine puts a ball of fire, gigantic beyond imagination; in place of the friendly lights of the sky, similar balls of fire at inconceivable distances, or spheres like the earth, that reflect light from other sources; and all immediate sense impressions were to be regarded as deception, whereas immeasurable distances and incredible velocities were to represent the true state of affairs. Yet this new doctrine was destined to be victorious. For it drew its power from the burning desire of all thinking minds to comprehend all things in the material world—be they ever so unimportant for human existence—by simple, unambiguous, though abstract, concepts. In this process, which constitutes the essence of scientific research, the human spirit never hesitates nor fears to doubt the most self-evident facts of visual perception and to declare them to be illusions, but prefers to resort to the most extreme abstractions rather than exclude from the scientific description of nature one established fact, however insignificant it might seem."

-Max Born on the Copernican system

Saturday, July 12, 2008


I woke up to sunshine teasing an epic headache, broken hints and glimpses of things I’m not sure if I regret. There are bruises behind dried blood on arms and shins and then this giant stain on my jeans I couldn’t even begin to explain. Images: Back Bay, hard pre-gaming, a prompt ejection from Boston’s #1 single’s bar for being an absolute fucking ninja, presented to bouncers in turn for future reference, some apartment, a six mile stumble home in the dawn, Chinese food and cigarettes from somewhere.

I wrote four-thousand lines of code in past two weeks. I’m automating a technique, and soon I’ll be ripping through test problems. The plan is to publish this work by the end of the summer, submit an abstract to a conference in Krakow, Poland for next June, keep the NSF at bay about their money for a time. I’m driving at this hard right now because I can finally see the payoffs I’ve been eyeing for the better part of a decade and it’s all looking very real. Most of my peers are aimless, neglected by their advisors and nowhere near publishable work. Turns out I’ve made some strong choices and now the advisor everyone was scared of two years ago is provoking some unspoken jealousy. Truth is, I’ve got more pride in this lab than I’ll ever have in MIT. And then the boss and I spend an hour at my computer looking up pictures of the resort we’re staying at for a conference in Cancun and express similar sentiments about the poolside drink pavilion.

I spent one year with high hopes for this city and a second wallowing in disappointment. I’ve said a lot of shit about Boston, and believe that I’ve meant every word, but the next era is where I quite talking and resolve to wring a good time out of this city or raze it to the ground trying. Work long hard weeks with every intention of winding this thing so tight that I explode into Friday night like it’s my last; Saturday some meaningless maybe on the other side of cataclysm. Maybe it’s the sunshine, or maybe I’m getting sentimental about upcoming August days in Detroit, but sometimes I get the feeling I’ll miss this place terribly when I’m gone.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Too Few

One might think that the pain fades in time; that the more these bonds stretch and break, the more numbing I’d find the loss. But this is not the case. No, over time the anxiety only builds because somewhere over these past months a concrete deed has become temporary in my head. I’ve given it an end, a release, a time when it will be righted, and toward such a terminus one dreams…. See it was never friends I lost or gave up; turns out it wasn’t even individuals. It was freedom in a sense. Or better, it was human beings, and of those there seem altogether too few.

And so it came to be that on the first day of the 21st year of Alyssa Mullen, as I stood in the center of a yelling mob, lawn chair raised high above my head, a deficiency in my life suddenly took on clarity. The thing that I had failed so miserably to articulate on so many occasions finally took the form of a word for me. It came to me again, that word, as I stood on the following day under the beating sun drinking donation beers in a nebulously managed non-bar, listening to loud rock from countless bands that seemed to draw their members from the crowd at random. Later that night the word came again, as we sat in some overgrown sheet metal enclosure burning used lumber found roadside and stolen for simple lack of communication.

Community is what came to echo in my head during these times. In what sense? Take for example the fact that at no point in two days did I find myself in the company of less than 10 individuals save maybe late at night when things tend to dwindle in the usual way. But sometimes it seemed thirty or more people were around me, all there for essentially the same purpose, however subdivided into tighter groups and relations. And of these people I knew many, but often not most, and met more of them than I could reasonably be expected to remember. And these groups, in such numbers, seemed inevitably to take the attitude that the rules somehow did not apply to them in full, the attitude that if they were criminal then they were also jury. These groups inevitably took on the behavior that seemed, at that time and place, to reflect the will of their members, without appeal to objective external customs or regulations; without appeal to laws or norms. They behaved as tribes do, where consequence comes only from within.

What I have failed to articulate so frequently is the difference between Detroit, so run down, dangerous, and devoid of worth to the outside viewer, and the thriving cities, Boston, NY, etc., with their cropped city parks, well maintained storefronts and high standard of living. The answer, at last, is community. The answer is that, without city works, without routine maintenance and ample police force, without plentiful jobs and plush accommodations, Detroit has developed a real community unlike anything found in the modern metropolis. The people have given up on the city; it provides them nothing. The city is not what looks after them and protects them, it is not what entertains them or provides them opportunity. The city is not what gives them comfortable places to relax and spend time. The city has utterly failed them and they instead turn to their neighbors. They turn to the principles of common good. In community and trust they find protection and piece of mind; in community they find their entertainment. Who builds the fire pits? Who is responsible for the best bars and parties? Who can claim responsibility for the festivals and shows, the music and the art? The People and the community. And who’s right is it then to make rules and punish. The police and city officials who have failed to protect them or ease their fears? No, it is only the tribe to which you are accountable. That is community, and these are human beings.

But in Boston, law and order come from the outside. The people are comfortable and entertained. They do not yell and hoist lawn furniture; the People would not be behind them. They do not make fires and play guitars in the night; there are clubs and sports teams enough to keep them entertained. There are no festivals in the streets because, though there’s money enough, the people have no pride and do no work. Here you owe your neighbors nothing because they provide you with nothing. The city provides and demands obedience and all are docile and in their place. They are clean and well dressed, they’ve no grit on their hands or stains on their clothes; they sleep at home and know routine. They have no thirst for blaring trumpets and no taste for Tequila. In summer, their porches are empty and their instruments are put away. There is no nature to be seen in the things they build. This is the price of protection and security, of manufactured entertainment, of centralized control and order. Where are the human beings here and where is the community?

The human being is filthy and uncouth. It is spontaneous and unpredictable. It is impulsive and acts in the moment. It is anxious and restless. The human being does not conform or check itself, it knows release in music and thought and destruction. It recognizes no institution. It loves other human beings and answers only to them. It loves excess in all things, yet it makes due on little and thrives in discomfort. It lives for the experience; lives to be confused and challenged, to be surprised and to learn. And it finds in other human beings something infinitely richer, more satisfying and more compelling than in all other works of nature.

Yes, of these there are far too few.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

K is for Karma

I keep telling myself I’ll keep this blog flowing and it never happens. I guess I don’t spend as much time as I used to pondering bizarre ideas to write up or crusading against some misplaced brick the foundation. Frankly, I don’t have the company to stimulate it. I’ve gone boring by all accounts; wake up, office, gym, office, sleep. Caffeine in the morning, adrenaline in the afternoon, and all the while I’m hacking out code and writing manuscripts, swearing under breath and crumpling paper by the ream. There’s a social event in this routine maybe once a week. The funny thing is, I’m thrilled with it. One more semester down and a sleepless 48 hours has me convinced I can take over the world this summer if I put my mind to it.

And now warm weather’s come to Boston and my daydreams are all bandanas and porch time and glass bottles in the post-12-ounce range. I’ll be on the ocean soon too, back to island hopping and causing trouble at the other half’s lavish beach houses. There’s debauchery off the mainland this time of year. It all go’s out to sea.

By the way, I’ve received a parcel from my dysfunctional Alma mater, and it seems that the latest fantastical blunder in the long line of enrollment errors, misplaced funds, lost paperwork, and ignored service requests is a single check, for $1K even, made out to me and mailed with no forms, letters, or explanations. Alright Wayne State, let’s say we call it even.