Locomotive Breath

 Waiting for the Jungle
a suffering of words

The Eye of Desire

“I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to eliminate purpose.”

- John Cage

{ AND }

“THE EYE OF DESIRE dirties and distorts. Only when we desire nothing, only when our gaze becomes pure con­templation, does the soul of things (which is beauty) open itself to us. If I inspect a forest with the intention of buying it, renting it, cutting it down, going hunting in it, or mortgaging it, then I do not see the forest but only its rela­tion to my desires, plans, and concerns, to my purse. Then it consists of wood, it is young or old, healthy or diseased. But if I want nothing from it but to gaze, “thoughtlessly,” into its green depths, then it becomes a forest, nature, a growing thing; only then is it beautiful.”

- Herman Hesse (Essays on Life and Art)

Cliché as Existential Angst

“To idealize: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart” – Martin Amis


“I say play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing – Even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years” – Thelonious Monk


Here’s what used to be my take on it. The real tragedy of Man the Artist is his deep, painful need to create unique meaning out of his short and often lonely existence on this planet.

To discover one’s own truths, or perhaps to capture old truths in a new light; to embark on a personal journey of self-discovery that ultimately reaffirms the uniqueness of one’s soul – this is the true essence of art.

Scientists have this desire too, to discover the truth. But there is a difference: to scientists, truth doesn’t have to be uniquely theirs. It doesn’t have to, and in most cases shouldn’t, be subjective or personal. It just has to be falsifiably true, or even simply useful. The truth has to only explain and predict. In theory. In practice, scientists seek beauty in truth, where ever they can find it, the same as artists.

With one difference. To the artist, subjective unique personal meaning is everything in the long run. Without uniqueness in  perspective there is no point in us living distinct, separate human lives. Without it, indeed, there is no difference between one person and the other; no difference between you and I, or him and her; we may all as well be a part of the Borg collective.

The cliché is that which tears at this fragile illusion of uniqueness, of personal meaning. It is the thing that can shatter the belief that one’s experiences are special and subject only to one’s own personal truths. It’s that which threatens to limit and confine the sum total palette of all possible expression.

This is why the inability to transcend the cliché, be it in the various forms Martin Amis was campaigning against, or be it in the spirit of Monk’s advise, can quickly become an artist’s worst fear.

Funny thing is, since art becomes complete only when it connects with the intended audience, the audience too shares in this antipathy towards cliché, although, perhaps not with as much existential horror as does the artist. Not nearly as much, and not always.

In fact, often the audience will find safe harbor in the cliché, and it’s the artist’s job to raise the storm and destroy the harbor, so that he may eventually build another.



In her new book, Monoculture – How One Story is Changing Everything , the 2011 George Orwell award winning author FS Michaels quotes Vaclav Havel on the pressures to conform in communist Czechoslovakia:

In a society grown rigid with ideology, Havel said, you come to accept that you live according to that society’s values and assumptions. If you were to refuse to conform, there could be trouble. You could be isolated, alienated, reproached for being idealistic, or scorned for not being a team player. You know what it is you are supposed to do, and you do it, not least to show that you are doing it. You go along to get along, he said, and so you confirm to others that certain things in fact must be done if you are to get along in life. If you fail to act as you are expected to, others will view your behavior as abnormal, think you arrogant for believing you’re above the rules, or assume you’ve dropped out of society. The society grown rigid with ideology gives you and everyone else the illusion that the way things are is the way things are meant to be; the story you hear is natural. It has been told and retold for years. Everyone tells it.

In truth, Havel said, that story is not natural; there is an enormous gap between its aims and the aims of life. Whereas life moves toward plurality and diversity and the fulfillment of its own freedom, the system demands conformity, uniformity and discipline. The system, Havel said, “is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.” That world of appearances operates on a kind of automatic pilot, permeating and shaping the whole society. Though the world of appearances is partly stable, it’s also unstable because it’s built on appearances. Living within the world, you don’t have to believe in it, but you have to act as if you do to get along in life.

Sometimes the whole thing seems innocuous enough for you to shrug and say, What’s wrong with going along with the world of appearances anyway? You then accept the rules of the game, Havel said, become a player in the game, and so make the game possible in the first place.

What Havel describes is, of course, life inside a monoculture, i.e., a master narrative that comes to dominate everything else, shrinking diversity, and directing us without us knowing too much about it. While Havel’s monoculture was a product of communist ideology, almost everything he describes translates effortlessly to the dominant monoculture of ours today, which, as FS Michaels defines it, is the economic story that we have come to believe is the story of life itself. The story that being rational, efficient, productive, and profitable are the ultimate expressions of being in the world, to the exclusion of everything else that makes us human.

Being in a monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone has to explicitly believe the same thing or act in the same way. The rules of the monoculture are often undefined and not clearly articulated, but they are implicitly felt by everyone:

We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.

Monocultures slowly change the way we think and act – in terms of our work, our relationships with others and with the natural world; in terms of our community, our physical and spiritual health, our education, and our creativity. They become the sole fabric with which we weave meaning into our lives, to the exclusion of any other possible meaning.

For example:

Yesterday I was looking at the catalog of a nearby college. I couldn’t believe the courses they were offering. How to use a computer. How to make a good investment. How to get a good job. How to, how to. There was hardly one course to make the inner man grow. If you suggest that a course in ancient history may play a role in a person’s growth, they laugh at you. What relevance does it have to our life today?  — says 93-year-old Sophie Mumford in 1995, interviewed by Studs Terkel

In our extremely individualistic society we have come to see isolation and loneliness as akin to ‘the human condition,’ instead of as by-products of a certain kind of social arrangement. —Robert Solomon

But of course the problem is, as with the monocultures of the past (religion and superstition, for example, in the dark middle ages, and the monoculture of science and machines that followed it), the story of economic values and assumptions isn’t the whole story of what it means to be human. It may be one story, but it isn’t the only story. By closing ourselves to everything else that makes life vibrant and diverse and worth living, by choosing only one meaning for human existence, we end up paying a heavy existential price.

You can transcend monocultures – and you see people around you doing this all the time, some without even realizing it. Part of this is knowing that you’re in a monoculture and are living a life that isn’t authentic to you. Once you know what the monoculture constitutes, you can decide whether it serves a useful purpose in your life, or whether you want to transcend it and live in a wider spectrum of human values instead. It doesn’t mean dropping out of society or isolating yourself from the world or starting a counter-cultural movement. It means to live your life with dignity, and free from manipulation.

As you begin to live aligned with your deepest values instead of solely economic ones, your actions from day to day will in time be  marked by a high degree of inner freedom. The independent life can take almost any form, and can encompass whatever it is you do, wherever you are, in whatever sphere of activity you already happen to be in. You can live alongside the monoculture and create parallel structures that allow you to experience the breadth and depth of human values and build on what resonates with you as an individual.

Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin. —Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Digital Advertising: An Information Scientist’s Perspective

Jimi Shanahan and I co-authored a chapter for the book, Advanced Topics in Information Retrieval, published last month by Springer. Titled ‘Digital Advertising: An Information Scientist’s Perspective’, the chapter surveys some of the current science behind the fast evolving landscape of internet advertising. The chapter focuses primarily on sponsored search and contextual ads with an ultra-light sprinkling of other types of online advertising, such as Display. Here’s a link to the chapter from Springer Online: http://www.springerlink.com/content/j0247817r2388824/ The book itself should be available from Amazon, et al. Since it’s part of an Information Retrieval book/series, the multi-faceted topics of display advertising, real-time-bidding, mobile, video, social, IP-TV, etc – fast growing areas that I’ve been focused on for the last several years are barely explored. The really cool thing about computational advertising, or the computational aspect of digital advertising, is that it is multi-disciplinary field, mixing it up with all kinds of interesting areas – machine learning, statistics, behavioral economics, information retrieval, macro-economics, auction theory, game theory, privacy, large-scale distributed systems, very very big data, predictive modeling, risk management, graph theory, and a number of other sub-fields.

Felicity and Depravity

From a terrific English translation of the Zhuangzi, we have this gem:

“This Mighty Mudball of a world spews out breath, and that breath is called wind. Everything is fine so long as it’s still.  But when it blows, the ten thousand things cry and moan.  Haven’t you heard them wailing on and on?  In the awesome beauty of mountain forests, it’s all huge trees a hundred feet around, and they’re full of wailing hollows and holes – like noses, like mouths, like ears, like posts and beams, like cups and bowls, like empty ditches and puddles: water-splashers, arrow-whistlers, howlers, gaspers, callers, screamers, laughers, warblers – leaders singing out yuuu! and followers answering yeee!   When the wind’s light, the harmony’s gentle; but when the storm wails, it’s a mighty chorus.  And then, once the fierce wind has passed through, the holes are empty again.  Haven’t you seen felicity and depravity thrashing and failing together?”

Specialization is for…

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

- Robert Heinlein

3000 feet of perspective on beauty

Last weekend I went flying with my friend Rob who is earning his pilot’s license one choppy flight at a time. We flew a 4-seater Piper Archer, a single propeller aircraft from the ’70s, painted white with a dull blue stripe running down the middle. The kind that has hard plastic seats. Taking off west bound from the Palo Alto airfield, we soared over the Pacific ocean at an altitude of about 3000 feet, just under SFO airspace. Then, turning due east near the Marin headlands, we headed towards the sleepy little town of Concord, where we landed for lunch. On the way back we circled around tall Mt.Diablo and swept across the blue-gray waters of the bay.

The Bay Area is simply beautiful from up in the air. I’d probably have to try very hard to dream up something more picturesque, more appealing as a whole. Imagine: the deep blue hues of the Pacific ocean shimmering in striking contrast to the wispy, fleece-white clouds hovering above it. The soaring, majestic northern California coastline dotted with dozens of little sandy beaches and rocky coves. Lush verdant mountains, redwoods and forests, little colorful waterways with white sailboats and their creamy wakes – the bays, the inlets, and the lakes. The surreal gleaming glass city at the tip of the peninsula. The Golden Gate. Mount Tamalpais.

I guess it often takes a change of perspective, 3000 feet in my case, to appreciate the charms of something you once treasured but now have come to take for granted.

Floyd Salas used to say that everything that is beautiful is sad, because it will be gone soon. But there’s the other side to it – that even if things stay as they are, unchanged for eternity, our perceptions of them don’t remain the same. Sooner or later, what used to be beautiful becomes boring, ordinary, unattractive. When I first moved to the Bay Area, driving up 280 was a feast everyday the way the setting sun painted the sky like a playful child would splash colors on an empty canvas. Now, I don’t pay as much attention to most sunsets because spectacular sunsets are so common here that they’re ordinary. I almost wish they weren’t.

Demise of the Rennaisance Man

This happens to me sometimes. I visit the library and browse the shelves, step back and look at the books – thousands of them in long neat rows -  and a wistful knot forms in my stomach. I get the sinking realization – this sense of tragic irony – that I’ll never be able to read them all. And neither will you.

In a short span of time we humans have produced an exponentially growing mountain of knowledge – of science and art and literature and a million other fields of human endeavor: from the existential ruminations of 19th century café-mongers about the human condition to models of nano-particles that can’t be seen with the naked eye. From cave paintings to the Bullet Train. From Zen to the Marx Brothers. A staggering, gigantic, leviathan universe fueled by our thought and imagination over the ages and crystallized into little words dancing around conceptual paragraphs.

Why is this an ironic tragedy? Because, already, no single man can experience the fullness, the entirety, the breathtaking enormity of our legacy. We can nibble on the mountain, little chunks at a time – we can stand back and use devices such as synopses and summaries, cognitive crutches to give us the macro view of a ledge, a peak, a forest on the never-ending slopes of what we’ve created, perhaps. But we simply can’t partake of the whole.

So this is where the individual ends and Man begins. For only the human race as a whole can imbibe of this metaphorical mountain – only a billion people can scale it and consume it together. While a surgeon who specializes in taking apart the left-pinky may not know a coccyx from a cockatoo, “the surgeon” as a collective figure can repair everything from despondent bone marrow to that peculiar bigger breasts fixation of ours.

The Individual Man, proud, self-sufficient island of yesteryear, is revealed in all his nakedness to be neither. It may seem obvious, even laughable, this inevitable predicament of ours, but I lament the loss of innocence, the demise of the Rennaisance Man.

You cannot be an astronaut and write a Walden too.