Saturday, December 30, 2006

User-Defined Realities

Time Magazine just named me Person of the Year, Nick is sitting on chairs, we're starting a radio show... and Borges is attempting a "Refutation of Time."

Granted, only three of these things are happening in the present and future. As a special advance notification to readers of Isoceleria, be on the lookout for two fresh and wonderful Web 2.0 new-new-economy user-created-contents. The first is "Palatial Beachfront Property," a podcast radio show dedicated to talking about the most important issues of our time. And if you're reading Isoceleria, you know what sort of things are considered "the most important issues of our time." The second, the ILSOC project, is a bit further from my personal sphere of influence, so I'll reserve commentary on it until more work is complete. Know that if nothing else, it's going to embody the ideals of the user-created content paradigm.

(I'm terribly sorry for having used the word "fresh" in that misguided context.)

Time Magazine wasn't faced with a particularly good slate of candidates this year for Person of the Year. George Bush? Oh, you mean the President of the United States is an important guy? I never would have come up with that one on my own. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Kim Jong-il? Both slightly crazy leaders of countries with powerful armies that threatened to develop nuclear weapons but couldn't quite back themselves up on it. I think their votes cancel. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Al Gore, and any other number of prominent politicians? The Democrats taking Congress was significant, no argument there. Let's wait and see what that means for the country before we start handing out Person of the Year like it's candy.

Except, wait, that's exactly what Time did.

As everyone has probably heard, you are Time's person of the year. Yep, you. Look on the cover of one of the magazines, and you'll magically see yourself! And if you don't know why you were selected, it's because you make content on the Internet. ("Wait, I've been making crappy websites for ten years now! Shouldn't that make me Person of the Year ten times over?" Yes, yes, it should.) That's what makes the Internet great in the first place: dynamic and interactive content generation. Ever posted to a message board or forum? Done something as simple as voted in a poll? Engaged in such foolish behavior as making a blog? Congratulations, sir or madam, you have helped make yourself person of the year.

But more than fora, polls, and blogs, the Time Person of the Year and the conventional wisdom behind it is enamored with YouTube. YouTube has its place; don't get me wrong. But I'm scared of it. A couple of years ago (and still to some extent today), the Internet rage was the Flash cartoon: the sort of garbage you could find on Albino Black Sheep or Ebaum's World. If you've seen Badger Badger Badger, then you're familiar with this sort of thing. (If not, you're probably better off for it.) It seemed like there was an almost weekly rush of "Look at this awesome Flash cartoon I found!" Except, of course, it wasn't really awesome. It was comedic drivel, the sort of junk that violates a central precept of comedy: in order for something to be funny, it must be funny for a reason. "Random" does not cut it. Back in the Flash Cartoon Age, we only had to deal with these sorts of abominations from a subset of Internet users: the ones with enough specialized technical knowledge to make a Flash animation and the time and willingness to sit down and do it.

That's not so for YouTube. It requires exactly two things: a video camera and a connection to the Internet, neither of which is exactly a rarity these days. And it's going to let an even bigger "Look at this awesome video I found" phenomenon flourish uncontested.

In A Personal Anthology, a book that includes many short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, and which after a year and a third of hostage status from Samantha I am finally getting around to reading, Borges attempts a "New Refutation of Time." And before you start thinking "Wait a second, he's using a temporal idea to refute time," he defends that in this prologue. Borges bases his central argument on Idealism, which he interprets to hold that the perception of an object is all that really exists, and adding a physical quantity called an object is superfluous. In other words, pretend you're looking at a leaf. The leaf's existence is then defined by your observation of it: what the leaf smells like, looks like, sounds like, feels like becomes the leaf to you. Then, because in your world, the leaf already has a definition and state of being, considering an actual "leaf" to exist in the universe is redundant because its existence has already been defined.

Borges extends this reasoning to deal with time. He argues that time is supposed to be a sequence of all events that have happened and will happen, but if the perception of an object is in effect the criterion for making an object real, why shouldn't the perception of an event be the criterion for making an event real? Frankly, that's a tough argument to buy, both the idealist basis and Borges's extension of it. It's difficult to know whether Borges's ideas about time were outgrowths of (or at least influenced by) his pre-relativity lifetime. Did Borges, through this "Refutation," reflect a prevailing philosophical opinion of that era, one that was less informed than current civilization about the nature of space-time? Or was his argument not scientific at all, and would he have made the same argument today given the nature of physical evidence that suggests the opposite?

The most interesting thing about Borges's essay is that it highlights the impact of temporal influence on modern thought. In discussing Borges's essay, for instance, I used the words "pre-," "lifetime," "era," "current," and "today." So this essay is valuable not exactly in proving that time doesn't exist but instead in that modern culture has a lot of preconceptions about time, most of which we've never actually examined.

And to make things even more interesting, quantum physics would argue that Borges, or at least his Idealist basis, is actually correct. After all, if you're not directly observing something, how can you empirically prove its existence? That tree crashing in the middle of the woods with nobody watching? Not only might it not make a sound, but it may not even exist.

Currently listening: Light Grenades, Incubus

Friday, December 15, 2006


Warning: parts of this article contain Sushi Evangelism. Reader discretion is advised for sensitive groups.

It's becoming very easy to find places to eat sushi. It's even easy to find places to eat good sushi. There are lots of little restaurants where you can get some and think "yep, that's pretty good raw fish." But when does sushi transcend "pretty good raw fish" and become an excellent meal? Here's the part where I think every sushi eater has a completely different opinion: that their preferred sushi house/bar/restaurant is the very best there is, and that you needn't waste your time at any other locales.

Yeah, I'm no different.

And so when I volunteered my dad's lunch hour to buy me some free food yesterday, my obvious choice of restaurant was Wasabi House. There's really nothing obviously distinctive about Wasabi House: it's neither super-commercial nor "hole in the wall," there are appropriately Japanese people working and appropriately Japanese decorations on the walls, and the front of the place has a large cutting board, several large knives, and lots of rice and dead fish.

The thing that stands out about Wasabi House is the quality of their most basic types of sushi. Sure, they've got their house specials (one of which is something delicious called "dragon roll" that is certainly worth trying), and it's not hard to pour effort into one or two rolls and make them outstanding. Where Wasabi House becomes wonderful is in things like spicy tuna and spider roll. Every self-respecting sushi place has these... and yet, at Wasabi House, they're just better than anywhere else I've tried. Again, I believe that any sushi fan probably has the same opinion of their favorite place, and that brings me to a question. How do you differentiate high-quality sushi? If it's amazingly good at everywhere you try (and I'll be the first to admit that there probably are places as awesome as Wasabi House), how do you determine what's truly the best?

Following the Asian food theme, after a particularly difficult Problem 3 on a diff eq exam earlier this week, a few friends and I went to a place called Spoon. "Wait... that doesn't sound Asian!" No, it really doesn't, which is why this really is a paradox of a restaurant. It's clear that this restaurant is torn between wanting to cater to some sort of trendy urban crowd and wanting to sell high-quality Thai food. I'm not exactly trendy, so I can't comment on the former, but the latter is a resounding success.

First, a bit about the atmosphere. We've got a nonsensical English name, a full bar featuring American alcohol, and decor and background music that appear to have been inspired from Sprockets. And for all that, the quality of Thai food for the money is excellent. The menu is simple, serving Thai dishes for eleven dollars each (Pad Thai is cheaper, and there are a few more expensive seafood options) and all of the ones that I tasted were delicious. I had chicken Panang, which was basically chicken and vegetables in some chili-coconut sauce (granted, that's an accurate description of about half the Thai dishes out there), and there's no question that I'd order it again.

Now let's talk about "authenticity." A lot of snobs would probably complain that I wasn't eating "authentic" Thai cuisine. The same people would likely argue that my favorite Chinese place, Big Joy, isn't really Chinese. So my question here is define authenticity. One common criterion is "you know a Chinese restaurant is 'authentic' when you see Chinese people eating there." Or for particular dishes: a dish isn't "authentic" unless it originated in China. So look at Maggiano's, a popular (and delicious) Italian restaurant. I've seen Chinese people eating there, but I'm not sure if I've ever seen any actual Italians there... does this mean Maggiano's isn't authentic? Italian people don't really eat lasagna and chicken parmesan?

If you've been looking at what I've been listening to the past few weeks, it's been Christmas music. 'Tis the season, after all. Here are three of my favorites:

What's It Gonna Be, Santa? is probably the best contemporary Christmas CD out there. It has a mix of secular and religious, mostly well-known music but a few originals, too. Of course I'm biased toward Chicago being a trumpet player: most music can be greatly improved with a little brass added. Surprisingly, I've heard some of this music on the radio lately, where it is a refreshing alternative to hip-hop Christmas and 40's crooning. One note in particular: "Child's Prayer" from this CD is one of the only situations I can think of in which I don't mind children singing.

If you're looking for traditional Christmas music, there's really no place to go better than the ASO under the direction of Robert Shaw. Both The Many Moods of Christmas and Christmas with the ASO are among the best in this subgenre, with Many Moods featuring more well-known music and Christmas with the ASO showcasing orchestral music befitting the season. The ASO's renditions of "O Come, O Come Emanuel" and "Adeste Fideles" are both particularly worth listening to.

And if you ever have the chance to hear the ASO do it live, the Morehouse Glee Club's "Betelehemu" is absolutely not to be missed.

Currently listening: "Three Doors," VAST

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reading... for fun?

I like to read. It's just that going to Tech does not afford one much time to read much of anything. So when my literate friends ask me what I've been reading lately, I'm usually forced to respond with Physics for Scientists and Engineers or suchlike trash. Dead week being what it is, though, I've finally found time to read a book that's not describing the wonders of electromagnetic induction and how to calculate Faraday's Law integrals. My friend Nick gave me Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer ("a most ingenious Jew") as a Christmas gift last year... and I'm just now getting around to reading it. This book so far is one of the more entertaining books I've read recently, and Alex is becoming one of my favorite book characters ever, ranking right up there with such notables as Jaime from Song of Ice and Fire and Mr. Lockwood from Wuthering Heights.

I currently have Everything is Illuminated on my desk. Last week, one of my residents comes into the room and sees that I have the book. He points to it and says "You could have asked. I have the book." I have no idea what he's talking about, but I take the bait. "Why would I have asked you if I had that book?" "So you wouldn't have to buy it." "Actually, I didn't buy it, it was given to me as a gift... but why would I want to know if you had it?" At this point, I'm more confused than I'd been since 11 am, when Physics II lecture let out that day. And another resident comes into my room.

"Oh, you're reading that for English class," he says, more presumption than question. "No, I'm not." "Why are you reading it then?" "Well, because my friend gave it to me... and he thought I'd enjoy it?" Now the first guy explains his unorthodox line of questioning: "Yeah, I thought you were reading it for English, too. That's why I said you could have borrowed it for me." "No, I'm reading it on my own," I reply, a bit more emphatically. "A good friend of mine said I'd enjoy it, and it's supposed to be a good book."

Shouldn't that be enough?

Currently listening: What's it Gonna Be, Santa?, Chicago