Category Archives: Biography

You didn’t have to convert to do that!

I interviewed an Israeli woman earlier this week as part of the work I’m doing. Of course I had to tell her I’m a recent convert. She immediately brightened up and demanded to know why I did it. I tried to answer her, but everything I said she shot down with “you didn’t have to convert to do that.”

“You could observe Shabbat without converting.” “You could have your Jewish friends…” You could read Jewish thinkers…” “You could celebrate the holidays…”

Somehow I didn’t feel like she was doubting my decision. It seemed like maybe she was honoring it. Because things were immediately different between us when I told her. Kicking my ass with such familiarity, cheer and warmth, she was showing me my best answer.

Renaissances suck

When we realize our popular philosophies — each, in fact, an antithetical half of one shared popular philosophy — have come to the end of the road, and that they can go further toward explaining the very conditions they have helped produce, some alarming consequences come to light.

First, few are unlikely to allow themselves to suspect the role their obsolete philosophies are playing in their current state of mind, but instead “double down” and use their philosophies more and more obstinately, anxiously and passionately to diagnose what has gone so hellishly wrong with the world around them.

Second, if a critical mass of people do finally discover that the source of trouble in their own philosophies, they will for a time (who knows how long?) suffer collective spasms of dread and reckless renunciation and social chaos will ensue.

Third, a profusion of intense but unstable replacement philosophies will contend to replace the ground of agreement lost in the earlier renunciation. Most philosophies will flame out under their own non-viability, but the ones that don’t will not have the resources to recognize the others and negotiate a coexistence.

Finally, if one philosophy capable of uniting and making mutual sense of the rest emerges and begins to predominate by providing some common ground for agreement and civil disagreement, it will have an entire reality before it to rethink. This comprehensive rethinking is its process of maturity. On its way to adulthood the society itself will be marked by both good and bad characteristics of the young, including the most essential youthful trait — the conceit that one already comprehensively understands what most needs understanding, a phenomenon I like to call “microomniscience“.

My best hope is that this whole revolutionary process actually began decades ago, and that somewhere, or here and there, pockets of practical thinkers and thinking practitioners have already begun maturing a philosophy that the masses can adopt.

Approval or love?

When I was in my early 20s I made a sharp distinction between what I loved and what met my approval, and I noticed my music taste split along those lines, and the best of both tastes conflicted with the other taste. I did not love what I found most acceptable and what I loved was unacceptable. At the time I decided to emphasize what met my approval, and shortly after that I fell in love.

An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.

Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.

Evaporated

Around 1994 I had a horrifying dream about a melancholy girl who lived in a tiny apartment above a Ducati showroom. In my dream, she decided to annihilate herself by feeding herself into a transparent tube (like the pneumatic tubes used in bank drive-throughs) which ran from the corner of her room, down the building and into the city’s underside. She just evaporated into vagueness and seeped away.

I never could drive past the real-life Ducati showroom without experiencing loss. Whenever the dream comes true, the sadness is ready.

It’s the experience, stupid

People think software is becoming more frustrating because the world has become more complex.

This is false. Software is worse because development has been drastically accelerated. The shortened cycles leave little or no time for best design practices that ensure that real people experience the updates as useful and usable. The QA testing often suffers, too and software is released with major bugs. And this is all by design. But don’t take my word for it. The following passage comes from page 4 of the Bible of this development approach, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries:

I’m a cofounder and chief technology officer of this company, which is called IMVU. At this point in our careers, my cofounders and I are determined to make new mistakes. We do everything wrong: instead of spending years perfecting our technology, we build a minimum viable product, an early product that is terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer-yes-really stability problems. Then we ship it to customers way before it’s ready. And we charge money for it. After securing initial customers, we change the product constantly — much too fast by traditional standards — shipping new versions of our product dozens of times every single day. We really did have customers in those early days — true visionary early adopters — and we often talked to them and asked for their feedback. But we emphatically did not do what they said. We viewed their input as only one source of information about our product and overall vision. In fact, we were much more likely to run experiments on our customers than we were to cater to their whims.

Traditional business thinking says that this approach shouldn’t work but it does and you don’t have to take my word for it. As you’ll see throughout this book, the approach we pioneered at IMVU has become the basis for a new movement of entrepreneurs around the world. It builds on many previous management and product development ideas, including lean manufacturing, design thinking, customer development, and agile development. It represents a new approach to creating continuous innovation. It’s called the Lean Startup.

If you read the book, it becomes abundantly clear that Ries thinks very much in terms of engineered things: software, organizations, innovations. And what he wants to do with those things is to improve them as rapidly as possible, through trial and error. This makes sense, given his background.

What Ries fails to consider, though, is the experience real people are having while advancing his project of continuous innovation. He is not thinking about what it is like for a real person to try to do something important with his latest “terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer” release. And he is certainly not thinking about what it is like to live in a world where most software is developed this this way, and consequently is in a stage of disrepair and renovation all the time. The “fail fast” trials of innovators translate directly into our own failures to get stuff done with reasonable effort because our tools never work like we expect.

And imagine: this is thought of as progress in the industry. In the 90s and early 2000s the software industry was progressing in a different direction. More and more people were talking about designing experiences. What was meant by experience is that when we design, our ultimate product is not the object we are engineering but the subjective experiences people when they use it. But somewhere along the way, experience became a cool euphemism for “thing” with no reference whatsoever to real people or the experiences they have. People now work on their “experiences” and it doesn’t cross their mind to wonder how you will experience what they’re doing.

So, the next time you go to open some software and cannot figure out how to use it anymore, or when software updates and it crashes on you, or feel a pit in your stomach when you see a dozen app updates — just know that the owner and investors in charge of this software probably read this book and thought it sounded like a pretty great idea.

One day when we will look back at this time in our history, maybe our minds will boggle that the folly of this approach wasn’t obvious to everyone. But for now, we’re just bobbing in this boiling broth, singing “ribbit”, and blaming technological progress and ourselves for what is in fact an industry-wide brain fart.

Luckily, I got out of UX (user experience) just before it was taken over by Lean Startup, and designers were demoted to front-end prettifiers and design researchers were pushed to the margins of the process, if not out of it altogether. I have no professional skin in this game. But as a user, I do still have quite a bit at stake. I would love to spread my enlightened frustration as far as possible.

Tacit commonality

It can be deeply enjoyable to argue with people who share a common philosophical perspective, because these differences of opinion emphasize a commonality of understanding. This is as true of an argument about sports as it is an argument about what an argument is.

I believe the pleasure in this activity is similar to enjoyment of art and of religion at its best: something shared that is undeniably real but which defies speech becomes palpably present. This presence connects us.

No matter how rarefied our stratum of thought, discussing matters of truth within this stratum happens within yet another stratum of commonality, and it allows us to feel its reality and our connection within it.

Even if we try to transcend our understanding, to suffer and grope for a passage beyond our knowing, we do so within something, and we do so with others who feel the presence of tacit commonality — a commonality of restless souls who keep feeling their way further and further, in thinner and thinner air, with fewer friends.

*

What we love for no reason we can explain, we love for lack of words.

Je ne sais quoi.

 

Slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions of interpersonal being

Wow, this post really sprawled out. It hits a lot of my enduring interests. I’m not sure it is suitable for reading. It might just be a personal journal entry written to myself. Feel free to eavesdrop if you wish, but I cannot promise it will make sense or yield any value.

*

I listened to a fascinating Radio Open Source podcast on Hannah Arendt’s conception of evil, which ended with a wonderful discussion on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

Christopher Lydon (host): And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

This exchange is especially interesting to me for three reasons.

First: as a Human Centered Design researcher/strategist/designer, I am constantly telling people that I am in the “empathy business.” However, I have long been uncomfortable with the characterization of what I do as “empathy”. To characterize understanding another person subjectively as primarily a matter of experiencing how they feel misses the mark in a very Modernist way. (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). While feelings are important to what I do, they are not the primary focus. I would prefer to characterize my work as concrete hermeneutics, but words like that do not fly in the flatlands of business where thinking lags a minimum of three philosophical generations behind. So, I’ve adopted “empathy” and accepted the inevitable misconceptions that attend it, because that’s what it takes to be understood at all by most people.

It is hardly surprising that I see things similarly to to Young-Bruehl and Kohn, because I belong to their tradition. Heidegger taught Arendt and Gadamer who both taught my favorite thinker Richard J. Bernstein. A Clifford Geertz quote from Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism has stayed with me as an anchor for my understanding of what a good human centered designer does.

Second, I think that when we see things this way, we tend to treat emotionally-oriented people who are very sensitive and sentimentally responsive to people around them as having some kind of monopoly on human understanding. In my experience, there are multiple stages of coming to understanding of another person, and a talent for sensing and responding does not always correspond with a talent for grokking the “logic” of other people’s worldviews, nor an ability to think, speak and create from another worldview. It takes a fairly vast range of talents to function pluralistically.

I think a lot of the political problems we are experiencing today result from shoddy and retrogressive philosophical conceptions of alterity (“otherness”), which still see understanding of other people as very literally empathic. To know what is going on with another person, we must ourselves have had the experiences and emotions that other person has had. In an effort to understand and to demonstrate our understanding we must induce emotions similar to theirs. Two consequences follow: 1) The one who understands must try to produce the right emotions, and this production of emotion is the demonstration of understanding, which leads to some fairly repulsive public displays of political sentimentality. 2) The one who is understood is put in a position of judging the authenticity of those emotional displays, which is more or less being given the role of arbitrary judge. And if the feelings of the understood is viewed as the central datum or a special kind of insight (being “woke”) into a political situation (typically gauging the degree of prejudicial unfairness, its impact on those victimized by that prejudice and what is required to rectify that unfairness) this amounts to extreme epistemological privilege. Only the victim of prejudice has access to the reality of the situation, and those who are not the victims are incapable of perceiving how they participate in the perpetration, so to use the charming the formulation of today’s hyper-just youngsters, it is their job to STFU and to accept the truth dictated to them. It never occurs to anyone within the power hierarchy of wokeness that there’s anything superior to all this illiberal mess to awaken to. There are philosophical worldviews that are more thorough, more comprehensive and more expansive than the dwarfish ideology of the popular left, but for all the reasons they are eager to point out to anyone who defies them, they are entirely incapable of seeing beyond the motivated reasoning of their own class interests. (This does not mean I think the popular right is any better. It is not. We are in a Weimaresque situation of resentful evil left idiocy vs paranoid evil right idiocy, with the reasonable voices shoved to the margins.)

Third, I’ve found myself misunderstood by many close friends on how I view relationships, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did a great job of capturing how people think I see them: a “slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notion about what binds people to each other.” I think the misunderstanding is rooted in this same conception of human understanding being primarily an emotional phenomenon. When my own ideal of marriage or of friendship is strained through the filter of today’s left worldview, it looks like a mystical merging of souls that arouses (and should arouse!) suspicions of domination and anxieties around loss of self. But any attempt I make to try to explain the difference between what I have in mind looks like, well, an attempt at philosophical domination and a threat to the selfhood of whoever is foolish enough to take it seriously. Who am I to tell someone something they don’t already know? And anyway, it smells very cultish to listen to someone claiming to know better than the public what is true and right. So, by the circular logic of the popular worldview of the left, it is superior to form one’s own individual opinion (never mind that this opinion on opinions is a product of an unexamined and manifestly broken worldview.)

Obviously, this means extreme alienation for anyone who adopts a sharply differing worldview that affirms the importance of collaboratively developing shared understandings with those around them. In an environment of extreme ideological conformity (with brutal social consequences for infractions) that exalts above all the importance of intellectual independence — but strictly within its own confined philosophical horizon — a philosophy of interdependence, of collaborative development of the very concepts one uses to form one’s opinions, and exalting a togetherness in shared worldview is marked for expulsion.

Anyway, what I really have in mind when I imagine ideal personal connections is, once again, that ideal sketched out by Bernstein, captured so well by Geertz, which I will now go ahead and re-re-quote.

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

And now I will quote myself:

“Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them.

A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.

A good design shares the essential qualities of a good gift.

The kind of merging I have in mind is just sharing a worldview and using it together to live together, what Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher) called a “lifeworld“. I’ve called the process “enworldment”.

The merging aspect of this ideal enters the stage through my belief (shared, I believe by Process Theology) that souls are universe-sized. The pragmatic consequence of what one means when one says “everything” is the scope and density of one’s soul. To enworld* with another is to bring two “everythings” into harmonious relationship, and to begin to function more like a culture than two isolated individuals within this isolating milieu so many of us, without ever choosing, without even knowing we had a choice, inhabit as prisoners of our own destitute freedom.

(Note: that “enworld” link above is a pretty old post, and I’m not sure right now how much of it I still agree with. It makes me want to engage my old self in dialogue and try to discover how much common ground we have. How enworlded am I with my 9-years-ago self?)

Witness Bike

Some pictures of a prototype of the bike my brother and I are producing together. I got to ride it over the weekend, and it is perfect. It is stable but very lively. There was no need to get used to it; I was at home on it instantly. And I can’t stop looking at it. It is a beautiful object (which was one of our requirements).

 

The frame is lugged. Look how pretty the lugs are. The color came out exactly as I hoped, a very reddish purple.

Taking away my tools

Over the last decade and a half I’ve relied on four tools for making my thoughts.

Of these four, two have broken in the last couple of years: Adobe Illustrator and WordPress. These two tools have undergone frequent deep UI changes, which have obsoleted my skills. When I try to use them now, I’m too busy thinking about how to use the UIs to concentrate on the ideas I’m attempting to develop.

Yesterday, I found out my hosting service is upgrading their server and it is going to bring down my Wiki, my core tool for organizing what I learn in my reading. I chose to host my own Wiki so I could control this key tool and not be subject to the whims of developers, but now they’ve caught up with me and ruined this tool, too. Now I only have one thinking tool left intact, and that is my own philosophy.

It’s funny; this feeling of vulnerability is exactly what led me to philosophy in the first place. When I was a kid living at home, my father was fond of informing me that I owned nothing — that he could take any of my possessions away any time he wanted to. My parents were always threatening my sister with taking away her horse if she didn’t toe the line. I saw clearly that I could not tolerate that kind of exposure. I figured the only thing I had that could not be taken away were my ideas, so that was what I made my treasure.

Stupidly, I have relied on tools under other people’s control to help me shape and craft my ideas, and when those people decide to exercise their whims to disrupt my ability to use these tools, my most precious capabilities — the things that help me be who I am — are jeopardized.

I’m halfway considering throwing out all my software tools and re-training myself to use just pen and paper to work through my ideas. While I’m at it maybe I’ll get rid of all my books and kick my awful caffeine habit. I can’t trust other people to even understand what I need, much less to actually respect the legitimacy of those needs, much less to act in a way that doesn’t harm me. And supporting those needs is entirely out of the question. What I need seems unreasonable to other people. Nevertheless, I need what I need, and that means I must reduce by dependency as well as my exposure. I think this is the root reason so many thinkers are ascetic.

My next post is going to be a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user. I am convinced that the “ownership” of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.

Yom Kippur dream

Last night after we broke the Yom Kippur fast, I fell asleep and had a vivid dream. I was in a yard behind a suburban ranch house where two trees were growing. One tree was nearly barren. It had already flowered and given fruit and had shed most of its yellow leaves.  The other tree had strong limbs and was bursting with green leaves. But as I stood admiring it, I noticed the soil at its base was rippling. The tree began shaking violently and the ground heaved a boiling swarm of beetle-worms, which were devouring the tree’s  roots. A large section of the tree facing me calved off and crashed to the ground. Within two minutes the young tree was reduced to a flat pile of wet sawdust. Both trees were gone, and thick grass grew over where the trees had stood. There was no sign they had ever existed on the rectangular lawn. “Perfect space for a swimming pool,” observed a woman standing behind me.

*

Was this dream a response to yesterday’s Torah portion?

God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved.

He prayed to the LORD, saying, “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.

Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

The LORD replied, “Are you that deeply grieved?”

Now Jonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a booth there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city.

The LORD God provided a gourd plant, which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant.

But the next day at dawn God provided a worm, which attacked the plant so that it withered.

And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint. He begged for death, saying, “I would rather die than live. ”

Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”

Then the LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.

And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Esoteric summary

The heart of morality is the call to transcendence: we are meant to exist as ourselves toward reality that is not us (alterity). These are the proper terms of transcendence: self transcending toward alterity within a shared ground of infinite reality. This is very different from that common conception of transcendence that opposes a mundane natural world and a divine supernatural one. The fact that I cannot deny the existence of this call to transcend is the primary basis for my belief in God. Such a call has no authority in an essentially meaningless universe.

Alterity (reality that is not us) is infinite, meaning that it is not only quantitatively limitless, but qualitatively limitless as well. This means it can only be thought-toward in an open-ended way, not comprehended. Thinking-toward qualitative infinity encourages existing-toward reality in a way that invites the kind of radical surprise intrinsic to qualitative infinity, a prerequisite of transcendence, and is therefore an ontological foundation of moral life. An aid for imagining the directions of this existing-toward is along the trajectories of time, physicality and mind. These can be seen as the basic “objects” of transcendence, but they are everted objects which enclose us, involve us, and exceed us. (Another word for an everted object is a subject, and this is another tributary to my belief in God.)

The heart of transcendence is metanoia: a tacit conceptual/moral/practical shift in being that changes why we exist, how we exist and what we perceive in the world. These three kinds of being can be imagined as the self who exists toward infinity, the subject of metanoia.

Metanoia is a process that can be encouraged and discouraged, which sometimes even ought to be resisted. To navigate the metanoetic cycle, it is important to be able to read the waters of experience and to recognize the significance of moods, feelings and other psychological states that indicate one’s situation and help orient action and moral interpretation.

(Above was a sketchy summary of the diagrams in Geometric Parables. The moral ideal is diagramed as a spiral, qualitative infinity is diagrammed as an asterisk, the subject of metanoia is diagrammed as a trefoil, and the metanoetic cycle is diagrammed as a wheel. I did another half of a sketch yesterday, where I tried to explain each of the parables from the perspective of the others. I am going to finish that and publish it on this blog ASAP.)

Pamphleteerism

Over the last year I’ve been equipping myself to make pamphlets. I’ve purchased several reams of beautiful French Paper in cover and heavy text weights, waxed linen bookbinder thread, needles, and awls and a bone folder. I’ve figured out how to use Adobe InDesign with my printer (which prints 2-sided) to create booklets in signature format ready for binding. I’ve practiced and refined my booklet sewing technique constructing and revising Shabbat prayer booklets.

I think I am going to force myself to work differently in the coming months. I think I’m going to steal from the product development industry (my greatest, most beloved, most intensely detested frenemy, who has nourished me with so many unavoidable crises, who has dragged me through so much dark despair into so many enlightenments). What I intend to steal comes directly from the single most painful trend of the last decade. I intend to force myself to work in “sprints”.

Working in pamphlet sprints, I will write with the intention of always creating a printed pamphlet by the end of the session. I am also going to get rid of this notion of getting everything I’ve learned into a single book. I’m going to get it all out in microcosmic bursts of various genre.

Here are the pamphlets I have planned so far:

  • Geometric Parables. This is a book of diagrams I’ve been drawing and redrawing, interpreting and reinterpreting over the last 15 years. These images guide my best thoughts. When I think, often I am just growing the consequences of particular problems onto these frameworks, as if they were trellises. This will be an obscure little book, consisting of diagrams and meditations in compact verse. Its purpose is not explanation, and it is unlikely to make sense by itself. Its purpose is prayer: recollecting what memory cannot grasp. I will be flirting with idolatry making this pamphlet the way I want it made.
  • The Ten-Thousand Everythings. This could end up being a book that explains Geometric Parables. I’ve accumulated a large number of aphoristic scraps that fit together into a cohesive philosophical perspective. I want to attempt to demonstrate my way of thinking by exploring some key domains, especially ethics, ontology and religion. This will be my idea dump. I’m going to try to force myself to be more relaxed and prosaic writing and rewriting it.
  • Syllabus Listicalis. This idea came to life yesterday, when I just started listing out the most consequential points where I disagree with conventional wisdom. Few people understand the extent to which my thinking has diverged from the norms of everyday thinking, especially at the most crucial life-shaping points. This has left me in a place where at best I agree with others on details, but not for the reasons people tend to assume, which cannot be explained within contemporary customs of polite conversation. I doubt I’ll try to explain anything in Syllabus Listicalis. It will be a bare list of instructive disagreements, maybe a negative image of The Ten-Thousand Everythings.
  • Interface: This will be a more or less explicit book about the myriad lessons I’ve learned oscillating between human-centered design and philosophical reflection, and how these insights have constellated around what I think is an important new way of thinking about reality. I believe many designers have intuited the importance of this new perspective as they have developed and applied its methods to an expanding sphere of problems. But so far, I have seen no attempt to articulate the perspective itself and  account for its importance.

In addition, I may start typesetting my better blog posts. Maybe I’ll make a series called Anomalogues. But first, I’m going to make some editions of the pamphlets I’ve listed above.

Muffled by novelty

If you wish to say something truly novel, you’ll need to choose between 1) stating it in familiar terms so that people misunderstand what you say and at best accept a banal misunderstanding as true, or 2) to state it in unfamiliar terms so that people at least understand that they do not understand, but at the cost that they will regard you as confused, pedantically technical, impractically abstract or a charlatan.

Only those who stay very close to established truth get listened to as a peer — a peer who has something valid to impart.

Those who stray too far from established truth are shunned and silenced by being despised or exalted or, by some weird combination of the two, diagnosed as clinically eccentric.

 

Mikvah

Today is my mikvah.

Sometime around 10:45-11:15am EST other Jews will know me as a fellow Jew.

I cannot explain why this matters so much to me, but it does. And I understand why many people cannot understand how much this matters to me or why it matters, but I hope those who love me can respect where their understanding fails.

Hiddennesses

A solved problem.
A defined problem believed to have a solution.
A defined problem whose solution may be impossible.
A defined problem believed to have no possible solution.
An undefined but acknowledged felt difficulty believed to contain a definable problem.
An undefined but acknowledged felt difficulty which might contain a definable problem.
An undefined but acknowledged felt difficulty believed to be essential to existence.
An unacknowledged felt difficulty.
An unfelt difficulty: a non-problem.
A solved problem?

Light: unobstructed perception.
Shadow: darkness in light, obstructed perceiving.
Darkness: obstructed perception, nonperception in perception.
Blindness in darkness: obvious obscurity, perceived nonperception.
Blindness in light: nonobvious obscurity, blindspots, unperceived nonperception.
Light: unobstructed perception?

My 500-word spiritual autobiography

As part of my conversion process I’ve been asked to write a 500-word spiritual autobiography, and to pick out a Hebrew name. I thought I would choose Israel or Yisrael, but then I found Nachshon, and it is perfect for me. I’m weirdly excited about it.

Reading back over my own autobiography, I feel a need to thank and apologize to everyone who has known me too much, especially my poor Mom.

Here’s the final version, 72 words over the limit, but OKed by my rabbi.

 

I was born into a religious vacuum. The worldview I inherited had no space for religion. My first memory of religion is my 4-year-old self sitting on the potty asking my mother what God is. Her answer: “God is love.” I became an atheist.

Once I could read I gorged on mythology and Mark Twain. This antithetical pair of threads drawn from my earliest reading — a strand of constellated meanings twisted around a nasty strand of critique — has run through my life and connected my various interests and activities.

When I was ten my family moved to a town with a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I was made to attend Sunday services. I’d rant all the way home. According to adolescent me, UU was vapid! insular! a parody religion! a detox program for religion addicts! But when I charged UUism with hypocrisy, it backfired: attacking UUism with UU values, I internalized them, and infected myself with faith in reason, tolerance, self-criticism, pluralism, and dialogue.

My atheism ended after I met my future wife, Susan. She crushed me in an argument on the foundations of my morality, which resulted in 1) self-demotion to agnosticism and 2) love.

Before we were married, Susan joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. I went with her to liturgies, and that was my first exposure to Judeo-Christian scripture. I tried to get inside the perspective but I was unable to connect with the doctrines or practices. My wife and two daughters were enmeshed in a community who regarded me as blind, ignorant and possibly wicked. My devout agnosticism appeared to most people in my life as a blotch of nothing to be disregarded. I think this is why I embraced Vipassana meditation. I appreciated its focus on practice and its deemphasis of doctrine, and it dignified my outlook with a name. Plus, it made me nicer, and the insights gained in meditation have helped me understand mysticism.

Late 1999 we moved to Atlanta. I stopped meditating, got consumed with work and became depressed. I learned a lot from this. Coming out of it I re-centered my thinking on lived experience, rather than abstract ideas.

Then I was transferred to Toronto. I started reading Nietzsche — initially to understand the “slave morality” in my workplace, but it was soon obvious the critique applied to me. I interrogated my moral, philosophical, and religious conceptions until they dissolved. What remained was a new and odd mode of thinking. I found myself unable to convey what I was learning without resorting to symbols and metaphors. Religious writing now made immediate sense to me. My agnosticism became irrelevant. It was exhilarating but painfully isolating.

The urgent need to explain — and later, to exit — this state of mind, and to reintegrate with humanity drove me into phenomenology, hermeneutics, pragmatism, and eventually to Judaism.  I kept noticing that Jewish thinkers like Richard J. Bernstein and Martin Buber were especially, distinctively helpful. The values I kept finding in Jewish thinking resonated — especially around the religious significance of intersubjectivity. As I continued, I came to see Judaism at the root of everything I care about — the values contracted from my childhood harangues. I felt room in the pluralism of Judaism for religious life as I know it. I am a contrarian, but that doesn’t mean I do not need a home; it just means I can’t live most places. Coming here, I feel home.

Memories of oblivion

I’ve been asked to write a 500 word spiritual autobiographical essay, and this has me thinking about my experiences with Vipassana meditation. I only have room for a line or two on meditation in the essay, so I’m venting my verbosity into this post.

For me, the most surprising aspect of meditation was that “I” did not control my thoughts. Thinking would think, and something corresponding to “me” had emerged from this process.

Sometimes, if I managed to settle my mind down I could hear the stream of babble from which thoughts pop into my head. It sounded something like a murmuring crowd from another country. Some of the murmur was also visual, but all of it was a piece. Occasionally some random bit of murmur would spark recognition of some word. A word would sometimes spark a notion, and the notions would sometimes collect into an idea. An idea would occur, and then some stretch of time later — seconds, minutes or even multiple quarter-hours — it would come to my attention that “I” had stopped meditating… except there was no I who did the stopping. The I who had been posted there to do the meditating had gone non-existent, yet something had continued without it (recording memories) and something resumed my I-activities (my I-ing) once awareness came back. Part of that I-ing was gluing together all those memories to create the illusion that I had been there.

Consciousness is anything but continuous. It would be more accurate to say that consciousness is an effervescence of back-story and anticipation.

Or maybe it would be most accurate of all to say that I am a lousy meditator.

Meditation is only one of my go-to sources for insights into the workings of nothingness. Ocular migraines are another rich source.

I’ve been trying to write a prayer to my migraine wisdom. I think it might still suck in that way psychedelic stuff always sucks, but here it is:

You move from everything to everything, flashing across expanses of nullity.

Landing, standing on firm ground of  unruly particularity, blindness still clings to your heels. The shadow you cast is perfect: nothing there, nothing missing.

Then you leave, again, closing time behind you with a seal of oblivion. Wherever you go, after you depart you will always have been there, and will never have been absent.

Only those who move with you can detect your before or after, so I am attempting to trace your movements.

As we travel, please help me skim the churning chrome, and to not sink in it and drown. Please help me slip through scotomas and not collide with their nonexistence. Please face me forward, and guard my eyes from looking right or left, toward light or toward darkness, or glancing backwards into entangling comforts lurking in the familiar dappled shade.

Lead me to where my doubt fails.

Maybe I could call my kind of migraine o(ra)cular migraines. My migraines have taught me to notice the signs of blindness, which is the closest we can get to seeing blindness, which is not the cheap psychedelic paradox it might seem to be. You can detect blindness, but only indirectly and longitudinally, comparing moments with varying capacities to perceive (in the case of migraines) or capacities to conceive (in the case of Vipassana). But to do this, it is crucially important to not map these strange experiences to our old familiar distinctions. We will explain them away, extinguish them, sink them back into blindness, like how we forget our inconceivable dreams by crushing them into plotlines. The goal is to develop new distinctions that permit more kinds of reality to exist to us.

*

Maybe I should set myself the goal of reinventing the psychedelic aesthetic, in a more substantial and durable mode?

Bonus: a portrait of me with migraine.