Sep 23, 2007

natural instinct

One sometimes hears the argument that "doing x is good because it's natural" or that "x is good because it's natural" or that "it's instinctive for people to do x". (Or even the opposite: "you can do better than x. Now we have a modern way to do that".)

And at first hearing that seems to make sense.

But after rolling that phrase around in my mind for a few years or so, I don't think it makes sense any more. It's like when you repeat a word to yourself so many times you begin to question it ("wait, is that really the right word? it looks so weird"). The word isn't really weird, you've just bored through the top level of thought and discovered that the particular collection of letters has no intrinsic meaning, only what society has ascribed to it.

Same thing with "it's good because it's natural". In various circles one hears that it's natural for people to get seriously ill in old age, natural for humans to eat meat, natural for people to lose their tempers, natural to fight in wars. We hear that it's good to eat natural foods, good to give birth in a natural way, good to "get back to nature". Calling something "unnatural" is almost always an insult, and reflects curiously upon the speaker's personal discomfort.

Here's what I think: none of those things are really natural. None of those things are good or bad because of being natural. And unnatural shouldn't be an insult.

Let's define nature as the qualities and/or characteristics by which something can be recognized. In that case, something "natural" in this case would be something that bears the hallmarks of humanity. I don't think sickness in old age, fighting, or any of the other things I listed up at the beginning are actually descriptors of human nature. There are exceptions everywhere. And honestly, nobody wants to be summed up as "human: animal that gets sick when it gets old, fights within its species, eats food without or without pesticides, etc". Nah, humans are something more.

I think what really describes humanity is our ability to do "conscious evolution", that is, change our minds on the spot, have epiphanies, learn new behaviors within minutes (not generations), change our habits just because want to. We can decide what we want to do. If it's the middle winter and a person wants to lie in the snow in a t-shirt and shorts, he or she can. We can be as nonsensical as we want! Isn't that great?

Every person is free (to slightly varying extents due to circumstance) from what his or her ancestors did. This is not so for most animals, for whom instinct rules supreme. Humans may have an instinct for, say, fighting, but what makes us special is that we can override that instinct with conscious decisions - and not just once, but for our entire lives. I don't think we don't use our remarkable power of "conscious evolution" as much as we should. I don't think we should accept something or reject something on the basis of what's "natural for a human being" (we do this inconsistently anyway - of course nobody likes for a child to die a natural cancer death) . Maybe what's actually natural for a human being - that is, the action that truly identifies us - is to act on careful weighing of the facts, intuition, or whim - anything which allows us to break free of our instincts and go in new directions.

I realize some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of going against an instinct. But really, we seem to consider nothing more heroic. How about a fireman who runs in to a burning building?

It hasn't escaped me that one reason to call something "natural" is to designate it as an acceptable thing. We say, "sometimes jealousy is natural" and "it's natural to be afraid" and "it's natural to cry sometimes". I think what we mean in those cases is: "It's ok that you feel that way. Sometimes I do, too. So do most people. You're not weird. " And that's a comforting thing to hear. I just think it's better to say "it's ok to feel that way, sometimes I do too", seeing as our overall acceptance of "natural" things is pretty spotty.

Don't be afraid to decide who you are, and then become that person.

1. During the writing of this post, I did in fact experience the bizarre phenomenon of the word "natural" suddenly losing all meaning.
2. I feel rather compelled to tell you that I don't eat meat, do eat "natural" foods, try desperately not lose my temper, refuse to fight in any war, and do not expect individuals to die of cancer in at any age if they don't want to. But in all of those cases, I have reasons that have nothing to do with naturalness.

Sep 21, 2007

oh. my. god.

This arrest of Star Simpson is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. Take a look at the pictures. It's several green LEDs in the shape of a Star - it is indeed her name tag. Anybody with 2 hours of electronics instruction should be aware that a 9V battery, a few resistors and several cheap LEDs *in a breadboard* are not dangerous. (Case in point - I blew one up yesterday in lab. Nobody was hurt.)

I can't believe that security people trained to recognize bombs are so ignorant of what a bomb might actually look like that they could mistake a flashy little nametag circuit as an attempt at terrorism. If a person is allowed to use deadly force in order to prevent a bomb from being set off, he better be incredibly well trained in the art of bomb-recognition. I just watched a news report where the Chief of Police described it as a "circuit board that actually lit up". Lit. Up. Imagine that! He even calls it "a device". Idiot.

What's more, I can't believe they didn't apologize to her after they realized what it was. Sure, it was exposed electronics, but living in a state of fear of anything with a visible resistor is not going to cure terrorism. Hey, mister police man, what's that clipped on to the front of your shirt? A radio? Hey, what's that inside - IS THAT ELECTRONICS? I mean, honestly, the only difference between the two is a plastic case.

If our law enforcement can be duped by the simplest of circuits, we're worse off than I ever imagined. What we need is people who are highly informed and equipped with the most sophisticated equipment for bomb detection, and who are experts in responding with as little force as possible.

I think that people should be responsible for their personal choices, but not for others' ignorance. If a police officer can't tell a bomb from a piece of electronic art, it's not Star's fault. People who make unusual choices can usually be expected to endure unpleasant questioning because society likes norms, but they should never be punished under the law for harmless self-expression.

"Had she not followed the instructions, deadly force may have been used." Our police officers (or at least the ones responding to such a call) should unquestionably have been able to tell, by the time they had her at gunpoint, that they had made a mistake.

Holy chalupa, as they say.

Edit: Here's what I think happened. At MIT, you see, you can walk around with a shopping cart full of capacitors and the only comment you'll get is something like "hey, want a plastic bag to cover your capacitors? it's raining". I've seen people with all manner of complicated, dangerous experiments in MIT's hallways and nobody gives a second glance. I've even walked around with a bread board, PRECISELY the same one that Star had (she probably even got it from the same class I did - 6.002) and the only thing people say to me is "oh, did you finish the lab already? what resistor did you use for the voltage regulator?". It's easy to forget that Logan Airport is a completely different environment where, apparently, carrying circuits is a crime.

Edit2: This article from South Africa makes my blood boil.

"A 19-year-old student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology walked into Boston's Logan International Airport on Friday with a fake bomb strapped to her chest and was arrested at gunpoint, authorities said." It was a name tag, not a fake bomb. It was not strapped to her chest - it was pinned with a safety pin to her sweatshirt.

"Star Simpson, who is from Hawaii, wore a computer circuit board, wiring and a putty that later turned out to be Play-Doh strapped over her black hooded sweat shirt and in plain view." It was a bread board, not a circuit board. I know most people don't care what the difference is, but they are NOT the same thing. The so-called "putty" was in her hand, not even touching her nametag. And yes, it was in plain view - it was supposed to be. How many terrorists wear their bombs in plain view?

"She's extremely lucky she followed the instructions or deadly force would have been used," Pare said. "And she's lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue."


Edit3: Even Fox news is reporting that it "turned out to be a fake bomb". I've never been so totally aware that the news networks in this country are shot to hell.

Edit4: This is what they used when the surrounded her at gunpoint.

Sep 14, 2007

it is

It is a blessing to be...
It is a blessing to be here...
It is a blessing to be here now...
It is a blessing to be here now, together.

"too fat"

In continuation of my recent outrage at being harassed while biking, I was going to write yet another outraged bit about the latest of the never-ending Britney Spears snafus, but then I discovered that some woman in San Jose has already done it for me.

Read it here.

Or at least it mostly represents what I think. The article doesn't get in to the disgusting critique of every aspect of Britney's personal life, which is good, because I expect we're all sick of hearing about it. It also doesn't get in to a defensive "she's beautiful exactly the way she is right now, and if she lost any weight she'd be practically invisible" stance either, which I also appreciated because telling somebody that if they "ever change how they look they'll be unacceptable" seems pretty wrong to me...

However, I do sort of resent the idea that people shouldn't call Britney fat because more than likely, they are overweight themselves. Not so! People shouldn't call her fat a) because she isn't fat and b) because talking about womens' weight in such a nasty way is destructive for several reasons. First of all, it perpetuates the idea that it's ok to question 1 millimeter of skin in the "wrong" place on Britney, but it's never OK to speak (even compassionately) about the weight of a non-celebrity peer. Basically, it just cements peoples' perception that your weight is inversely proportional to your self worth and confidence. What, fat people can't rationally communicate about their health or appearance, and if you try you're a bad person? If that's even the tiniest bit true, it's the fault of catty media articles that call Britney fat and then expect us to love ourselves.

I'm on the fence about the author's choice to include the names of celebrities like Kate Winslet, America Ferrera, and Queen Latifah. On the one hand, it's nice to point out that they *appear* to be doing a good job of eating their Wheaties and so on (although of course we can't be sure, one's appearance is not always correlated with body acceptance). On the other hand, I kind of feel like shunning "hollow-eyed, emaciated starlets" like Nicole Ritchie and Keira Knightley in preference of women with "bootylicious" curves doesn't really do much good. That's just ditching one body ideal for another. Although I cringe to say it, nobody these days seems to really embrace the concept - so I'll say it: "everybody's different". Although Kate Winslet's weight might be vaguely more attainable for the average woman, we're not all going to be Kate Winslets any more than we'll all be Nicole Ritchies, no matter how badly we want to be.

And this just makes my blood boil: "In that ensemble, you just can't have an ounce of anything extra," said Janice Min, editor of the celebrity magazine US Weekly. "Many women wouldn't eat for days if they were wearing that."

I have nothing horrible enough to say about that.

And, let me just say, I watched the video of Britney performing on MTV after reading all those articles, and yes, it was a terrible performance. Then again, I never was a fan.

Sep 12, 2007

just not cool

Every week I bike to Boston to have my violin lesson. I usually have a shoulder bag banging against my legs and my violin on my back, which in addition to my helmet causes me to have a strange ungainly way of cycling. I typically wear rather boring, nondescript clothes. My hair is usually rather messy because biking over the Harvard bridge is quite a windy experience.

So why is it that every time I leave my lesson, head filled with thoughts about fourth-finger vibrato, rolling my right wrist more, little snippets of Beethoven flying through my mind in the most sublime way... creepy guys hoot at me on the street?

It's not an isolated incident! It has happened 4 out of the last 6 times - and more than once on each trip! A few days ago, some college-aged loser made some weird hand gesture at me that I didn't understand, although it was perfectly clear that it was meant to be obscene. On the same ride, a guy on the Boston end of the bridge took pictures of me with his very expensive-looking camera. What is wrong with these people? What on earth is remotely attractive about some girl so completely laden down with heavy objects she can hardly cycle straight (not that this is actually the right question to ask)? A bunch of times in the past, some of these guys have actually managed to utter a few words in my direction, although I was a combination of disgusted and going pretty fast, so I have never actually manged to hear them, although I'm pretty sure I don't want to.

It occurs to me that when I leave my lessons, I am usually ridiculously happy and excited about the music I'm working on. Possibly, these people misinterpret genuine happiness in some sort of twisted sexual way? I'm not keen on thinking about it too much... but it's the only explanation I've come up with so far.

Either way, it makes me really, truly grateful that people on MIT's campus are, at least outwardly (and I suspect inwardly as well), respectful of women. What a shock to go half a mile away and end up feeling like a piece of meat instead of a person. Totally ruins my good mood.

Sep 9, 2007

the challenge of playing the violin

I was having a conversation with a friend about music nearly a month ago, and it's stuck in my head ever since.

We were talking about how classical music is such an inaccessible activity, in that it takes so long to learn how to do it, or in some cases even to learn to appreciate it. [Not to mention the fact that most people find it full of social and economic barriers.] Normally, in such a case, one would immediately suggest (and in fact my friend did suggest) that we should make it easier to play and appreciate classical music. Why should instruments be expensive? Why should lessons be expensive? Why can't we have free online videos showing you everything you need to know? Why do we need to use instruments that are incredibly difficult to play? (Violin is a hell of a challenge, but there are computer programs that, with only the mobility of your mouse hand, you can use to create melodies, harmonies, counterpoint - a whole symphony.) Actually, what's so great about playing an instrument at all? Isn't the goal to *make music*? If you can make beautiful music on a simple machine that's easy to learn and operate, does that accomplish the same thing?

It amazed me how stodgy I immediately felt when my friend suggested that a big advance in the world of music would be easy-to-learn, easy-to-play ergonomic instruments. I mean, I'm no stranger to the fact that violin is not ergonomic - I have an S-curve in my spine because I've been playing virtually every day for the last 17 years of my life. I've gotten tendinitis, and I've pinched nerves in my fingers. So what's so great about this awkward, expensive piece of wood I play with all the time?

I have to ask myself if I'm only defending it because I'm used to it, and I would feel annoyed if suddenly the next generation of musicians attained a level of music-making after months that I only reached after years of hard technical work needed to even be able to approach serious music. And on some level I think that *is* the case - working very hard to be come even a passable violinist feels something like a badge of honor to me, and I like the challenge. I do concede that more ergonomic instruments probably wouldn't be a bad idea. But that's not the whole story.

Starting from the top, I feel there IS an intrinsic value in learning to play an instrument, as opposed to having a computer or other electronic device play the music you compose (whether in real-time or not). The connection between instrument and musician is, after a while, almost seamless, and the instrument becomes practically an extension of your body. Sure, it's awkward, but so are bodies to a large extent - we just get used to them. The important point is that instruments are unintelligent and unsuspecting (despite being crafted with incredible skill), and have no preconceptions about what music is. They are tools that become virtually attached to you, and like hands, with enough skill, they can do practically anything. Personally, it seems especially beautiful and poignant to struggle to eke out a beautiful noise from a 100-year-old piece of wood and a stick full of horse hair. With a computer, it's waiting for your input in a pre-determined form. It already knows what music is supposed to be. You can't fool around with it. And, although I suspect technology will fix these problems in the future, computers are not capable of producing even a fraction of the tonal variation of a violin (or anything else), are very difficult to improvise on, and don't let you spontaneously make music with other people. Yet.

Then there's the aspect of connection to all the others who struggle with the same instrument - and to the composers who first imagined the music we are struggling to play. How cool is it that some guy 300 years ago conjured up an entire concerto in his head, and these days we STILL struggle to bring that dream to life? It's such an intimate and meaningful experience to try to realize somebody else's dream, especially in the medium of music, where you infuse your own personality in to every single note. If we could all accomplish it at the touch of a button, would that diminish it? I feel like it would, but I'm not sure. Maybe it would simply mean that we would be incredibly fulfilled people. Or maybe we would find that only in the sincerity and hardship of trying to understand one another do we become fulfilled.

[Note to self: this is a seriously good question for debate. If we all understood each other perfectly, would we all be happy? In the past I have asserted that total understanding disallows hatred entirely - and I still believe it - but this assertion has also been based on my knowledge that we will never completely understand each other in every possible way. What if we all were in *perfect* understanding?]

Lastly, we get to the nitty-gritty stuff. Why are instruments and lessons (particularly when it comes to violins) so expensive? Why can't we learn from books, websites and online videos? This is the information age, after all! This I have more concrete answers for, and I think at least one of them is important. The less important part first: violins (good ones, not student ones) are expensive because they take about 200 hours each to build, and so far nobody has been able to factory-build a good quality violin. They just require a ton of personal attention. Lessons are expensive because playing the violin is an extremely complicated skill which takes (yet another) extremely complicated skill to convey. Good teachers are rare and therefore very valuable.

Now the important part: we can't learn from books, websites or online videos because as far as my experience goes (and also the experience of all the other serious violinists I know), it is *not possible* to accurately convey the concepts needed to play the violin without being physically in the same space. I say "violin" because I can't really speak for other instruments - but I suspect that the same goes for any instrument at a high level. Of course, it is possible to get *somewhere* by watching a video or reading a book. It's not that it's entirely impossible to figure out the instrument. But the violin is playable on many, many levels, and in order to become what my teacher calls "a real artist" (where people judge your playing by how much it moved them, not by how complicated it looked for you to do and how much you must have practiced), you really, really need somebody to move the angle of your wrist 5 degrees and tell you to stop twisting your left shoulder and maybe put down your left first finger a millimeter to the right. You need somebody to demonstrate for you, to fix your technique in real time, to show you how to use the violin in the most extraordinarily efficient way possible - and most of all, to push you to the absolute limits of your musical understanding. This type of guidance is not available through any medium other than plain old-fashioned sitting in a room together and trying stuff out. Even super-hi-res video conferencing doesn't work. You gotta have 3D. You gotta have somebody to actually place your fingers where they should be. It's a kinesthetic endeavor.

And that might just sum up what I love most about the violin, and what makes me so resistant to the idea of super-accessible music making. What else is there these days that actually requires you to meet with a master, one-on-one, and try to do the impossible? What else takes 40 years to get good at? What else connects you with a whole world of other questers who are desperately trying to awaken something that a guy centuries ago imagined?

And is there anything as magical as taking out a funny-shaped, hollow wooden box, drawing some sticky horse-hair across it with everything you've got, and finding, in the end, that somehow you *have* managed to communicate something meaningful to other people?

Sep 8, 2007


Yesterday, I managed to put both contact lenses in the *same eye* without noticing. (For the record, the second one goes in just fine; it doesn't feel much different.) I stumbled around my room for a while, feeling off balance, and then tried to read an email on my computer and realized I was absolutely unable to focus at close distance and was completely unable to make out the words. It took me much longer than I'd like to admit to figure out what was wrong, because without the ability to focus close up I couldn't see that both contacts were in the same eye....

Sep 6, 2007

making friends

So the thing I'm making friends with - yeah, it's a thing, not a person - is my own stomach. It seems a bit odd to only get friendly with your own internal organs at the age of 21, but what can I say... it's taken me a while.

Funnily enough, I don't think I've ever written publicly about this issue, which is odd because I've been dealing with it since I was 11. I suppose most of the time it's inconvenient or embarrassing to discuss, and nobody wants to hear about anybody else's stomach problem. (Additionally, the responses I get if I mention it are usually exactly opposite of what would be useful for me, not that it's any body's fault.) Not great conversation material. So if you don't know, I'll sum it up smoothly: my stomach is unpredictable, uncooperative, and generally causes me trouble, and the trouble is only compounded by my rather severe phobia. (However, the two problems are so intertwined that from here on out I will refer to them only as my general stomach problem.) The problem has ranged anywhere from a vague sense that I ought not to do handstands after eating (on my best days), to extreme pain and inability to eat for upwards of several weeks. The effect that it has on my life also varies a lot - these days, I don't have to think about it all the time, I can eat most foods, and I can do most activities. I still don't run or swim or sleep within several hours of eating, but that inconvenience is easily circumvented by planning when I'm going to run/swim/sleep and then not eating (duh).

But there are still bad days - even now. When I wake up feeling sick for no reason, or when I eat 3 bites of lunch, can't eat any more, and am immobilized for the rest of the day. If I get in to a patch of bad days, life suddenly becomes more complicated - I can no longer go anywhere without bringing a whole host of items (I think I am the world expert at curing stomach aches that have no apparent cause) with which to rescue myself from uncomfortable situations (like being at a meeting with 3 professors and being unable to concentrate long enough to form a proper sentence). It's awful to step out the door in fear, with the sense that I need a backpack full of rescue "tools" just to walk to the store or something - but it's a LOT better than getting there without it and suddenly needing those things.

It's not that I haven't tried to medically cure myself of this annoying bum stomach. I've seen at least 6 medical doctors about it, been poked and prodded and tested for a zillion things (no conclusive tests), talked to at least 8 psychiatrists, tried 6 major drugs, and tried at least 12 different natural stomach health products. While I've learned a lot, and I've picked up some "tools" along the way, none of these people or products has really done anything for me.

So, what the hell is wrong with me? Conclusion: nothing. It would appear that it's... "just me"**. Now, one might argue that this chronic nuisance is not something I should just accept - I've certainly been encouraged to try every possibly avenue of treatment - but frankly, the only one left is surgery and I'm not willing to go that way. So if I'm not trying to fix myself any more, I better start picking the good bits out of the lot - and that's what I mean by "making friends".

Now, I think that in general, the worst part of it is behind me, which makes the whole deal easier to make friends with; I don't think I'll ever spend another month desperately trying to eat a quarter of a banana while losing weight at a fast pace. I don't think I'll ever collapse outside the hospital again, or lie on the lawn outside the house for 3 hours until I feel well enough to get inside. I've got more control now than I ever did then, and heck - maybe someday I'll kick the whole problem.

Last year, a baffled psychiatrist told me that since I apparently can't be cured, I might start trying to figure out how this whole problem benefits me. A few weeks ago, I was at a talk by a Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who themed his entire talk around an opening meditation: "Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I smile at my body". So, the signs are everywhere, and it's time to get thinking: just how does my little friend, my stomach, benefit me?

Well, for starters, it does sometimes do exactly what it's supposed to, so score 1. When it's misbehaving, it gets me to slow down and realize that I must sleep, eat well, and take care of myself. Because of it, I now know a jillion things to suggest to anybody who needs help with a stomach problem. I know what it's like to feel stuck in a pit, unable to dig one's way out of the wrong perception that life will never be easy or cheerful again. Because of my stomach, I've met some of the most accomplished meditators of the modern world and had a chance to ask them questions. I've learned a lot about the brain and how fear works. Perhaps above all, I've learned that when I see somebody sitting in a meeting looking distracted or unhappy, there are a thousand ways in which just being there, sitting in that chair, could be unimaginably hard for them. Actually, even if somebody doesn't LOOK distracted or unhappy, it still might be hard.

So.... hey buddy. Yeah, you, Stomach. I know you're tryin' hard. I'm getting someplace, I really am. Thanks for all the hard work. You can be quiet now. I'm paying attention.

**What exactly is it about me that causes this? For opinions from disparate sources, including my mother, a Buddhist monk-doctor, and my aunt, ask me.