Potpourri for $800

I was on AIM for a while a couple of days ago, talking with my brother about cell phone plans. At some point someone who wasn’t on my buddy list tried to send me an IM (I guess) and since AIM doesn’t have the greatest UI, the window that popped up asking whether I’d like to accept the message grabbed focus while I was typing a message to my brother. Of course, since I was typing so fast, I happened to hit ‘n’ and reject the request even before I could see who it was!

So first, if you’re that person — sorry! Send me an email or IM sometime and I promise I’ll accept :).

More interestingly, I thought a bit about why I felt so bad about it. You know the kind of person who hardly checks email, and when the phone rings waits for someone else to get it? Well, I’m definitely not that kind of person. I check email 5123145 times a day, answer the phone as soon as I can, and want to check snail mail every day just in case something is for me. Somehow I’m eager for contact. Maybe this makes me more accessible but less interesting. Or not. Who knows. Email me about it! (Just kidding.)


You know how everyone kind of figures that the elevator “close door” button doesn’t really do anything, but hits it anyway, just in case? Well I want some concrete evidence about this. In the past week I’ve been observing the time-to-close figure as I ride the elevator in a variety of circumstances, and I’m quite confident that yes, the “close door” button does nothing at all. Now I can safely avoid pushing it and getting irritated because it doesn’t seem to work. Score.

Anyway, if you live or work in a building with an elevator and get the chance, try to figure out whether the button does anything for you. Maybe it’s a nationwide scam! The most widespread placebo out there! This is the kind of scandal that could make headlines, at least in the imaginary tabloid in my mind. Seriously, I’d be interested to hear about any findings!


If you think about all the people you’ve known, it’s kind of crazy to recall the last time you’ve seen them, and try to guess at whether it’s the last time you’ll ever see them. (Hopefully most of them are still alive, and you probably are too, so there’s still a chance…)

I’ve been amazed at the people I was sure I’d never see again who keep turning up, and at others about whom I’ve experience the opposite. This latter category is the most distressing, of course: people whom you’re sure you’re going to see again, but who just disappear like that, leaving you mentally unprepared.

I wonder how our lives and interactions would change if we knew upon the last meeting that it was in fact the end. No more optimistic “see you later” or “keep in touch” — but also a chance to say things that you were unable to say before, for fear of embarrassment or some other unpleasant feeling in future interactions. It might be a very cathartic experience.


I’ve always been annoyed at the the “small-state-bias” of the Senate — since each state has two senators, people living in less populous states have a disproportionate amount of power. The 500,000 people from Wyoming can negate the 34 million people from California. Manu’s friend Keunwoo quantified this very nicely in his blog [the entry]:

Second, defenders of disproportionate representation might say that giving a modest boost to the rights of states does little harm and much good. Let’s see how the Senate looks in practice. Did you know that the 26 less populated states have roughly 20% of the population? That’s right: on the floor of the Senate, 20% of Americans can dictate law to the other 80% of Americans.

20%! That’s insane. I did some further counting, and it turns out that the Red states outnumber the Blue 19-7 in that 26 state bloc. Terrific.

Of course, this bias also weighs in on presidential elections, as we saw in 2000…. just some food for thought here.


Last item… the other day I was talking with some friends about art, and how I found it interesting that we take for granted that the process by which a piece of art (of any form) is created should be intrinsically factored into the valuation of the artwork as a whole. That is, the harder it is to do something, the more respect we give it.

You might argue that art should be valued of itself only, and that the process should be appreciated strictly independently. For instance, if you hear a saxophone solo, you should appreciate it only on the basis of how good it sounds, and totally ignore (for the sake of the quality of the solo) how hard it is to play. Or if you see a sculpture, even if it’s been painstakingly assembled by hand from a million toothpicks, you should judge it based on the finished product only, not on how it was made. Why should difficulty have anything to do with it? If it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. Why should we fault the guy who finds an easier way of creating something of equal beauty? For instance, if someone uses a machine to assemble a million toothpicks into an identical sculpture, why should we value that sculpture, indistinguishable at face value, any less?

In fact, for a while I thought that the reason that I and many other people factor it in is that we take an intellectual approach to the art in the context of its chosen form (as we do with most things, given our analytical minds), and then just accidentally conflate the art with the process at the end.

But the more I think about it, I’m not so sure. Last year, I saw a Gerhard Richter exhibit at the SF MOMA (and wrote about it in one of my earliest entries). Richter paints amazingly realistic pictures, so perfect that from more than a few feet away they look like photographs. Now, by the above theory, if that’s the way they look, then they really should be evaluated no differently from, say, actual photographs that look the same. However, even though I was intellectually aware of this fact, I found this kind of evaluation impossible to do. The beauty of the painting was absolutely tied to the process.

So I don’t know what to think. Is art valid as a reflection of process? You’d think that it would be cool to strive for a kind of timelessness in your artwork, creating pieces that could be appreciated out of context, literally as they exist alone. A part of me feels that it is cheap to do it any other way. But what do I know?

(I’m sure art theorists have written hundreds of books about this subject, but I’m not about to start wading through them. I’d rather form my own bogus opinions than steal someone else’s, thankyouverymuch ;).

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28 Responses to Potpourri for $800

  1. Anonymous says:

    Alex, Let’s make it a true daily double.

    Did you hear the alternate name for the door close button in elevators?It’s also known as the The disease transmission button for Type A personalities.


  2. Anonymous says:


    I see we are both hard at work today :). Re: checking email, I’m the same way, as you know. Maybe it’s something about making optimal use of a system, too? Like to make best use of this email system, I should be consuming the information it makes available as soon as possible, and otherwise I’ve somehow wasted its potential?

    Re: the close button in an elevator, I’ve definitely been in an elevator where it does something, the elevator in my dorm at MIT. I remember having a habit of pushing the close button after pushing the floor number (again, gotta make best use of the system), and that the door closed immediately instead of staying open for a couple seconds. But perhaps that’s the only elevator in the world with that functionality.

    I think we’ve talked in person about the other things :)


  3. jtlu says:

    Um, I hear the elevator doors in VEGAS are super-responsive when you hit the “close door” button. We should find out

  4. jtlu says:

    holy shit, miss teen usa is on tv tonight! i am cancelling all other plans

  5. ratatosksv says:

    It’s simple (and complex at the same time). The close-door button works in some elevators, but not in others. And it works in some instances with a particular elevator, but not in others.

    I’ve come across elevators where it had no effect at all.
    I’ve come across elevators where it had an immediate effect.
    I’ve come across elevators where it only had an effect after the regular close-door interval had elapsed. For instance, at the law school, if an elevator door is open, but someone presses the button to call the elevator on that same floor, it will keep the elevator door open longer. If you push close-door in this instance, it will close almost immediately. But if you push close-door before the time that it normally would have closed, it does nothing.

  6. Anonymous says:

    as someone who grew up living on the 30th floor of an apartment block, i can verify that damn straight the close door button works. you just have to adjust to the rhythm of the lift- the button is redundant until a very precise moment when the doors are fully open. liz x

    ps. i do hope i see you again :)

    • aj says:

      Yeah me too!

      I’ll be hanging out in Berkeley forever, so whenever you get nostalgic, I’ll be waiting there :). Also now that Beth’s back in SF, you have even more reason to come!

  7. ccho says:

    What kind of cell phone plans were you making?
    You should get a Bluetooth-enabled one so that you can take advantage of BEDD (http://www.gearlive.com/archives/2004/06/meet_your_next.html) in Japan. I wonder if that is a purposely-suggestive acronym.

    I think it’s far more annoying when the open door button in an elevator doesn’t work, and the doors close on the person entering the elevator.

    I think there are multiple levels of appreciation for art/music such as creativity, context, technique/skill, and superficial beauty (not necessarily in a negative sense). At first sight, an abstract impressionist like Rothko could be mistaken for an incomplete paint job on the wall, until someone explains how they represent something profound and how his technique made his works unique. This kind of shows (more examples would take more time and effort on my part) that without context, we cannot collectively appreciate something as art. Additionally, photograph of a hot asian chick, or other ethnicity, can be appreciated, despite the amount of artistic creativity and skill put into it.

    Music is similar — “showpieces” are popular among people who don’t listen to much classical music because they are melodically/harmonically pleasing and often sound more difficult than they are. Then there are extremely difficult pieces that don’t sound that way and are rarely appreciated for the difficulty level. I also don’t think you could appreciate modern works by composers such as Schoenberg and John Cage at any level without being given some context.

    I doubt there will ever be a piece of art or music that can always be appreciated without context. Whether or not you consider something art is based on the weight of importance you placed on the process and form.

    • aj says:

      Nice points

      And I agree with most of what you’re saying. But I do think that (at least for me) some pieces rely much less on context than others. For instance, take a Beethoven symphony. When I listen to one, I’m not wowed by the technical complexity of the piece, or even the difficulty involved in creating it (even though Beethoven was going deaf by ‘Eroica’, it’s really not something that crosses my mind very often). Somehow I’m able to appreciate the piece by the music itself. Or maybe I’m conveniently ignoring other factors?

      • ccho says:

        I wonder if tone-deaf people can appreciate music.

        Part of music appreciation is probably genetic, similar to language, while the other part is the type of music you were exposed to when you were young. Before you appreciated Beethoven’s Symphonies, I’m sure you listened to some other stemming from Baroque or modal music with harmonic and rhythmic patterns. If it were the first time you were exposed to any tonal music, you would probably not appreciate it nearly as much. Like language, certain patterns are ingrained in our memory and certain meanings can be associated to them. Why is a minor key inherently “sad” to us? Why does a dominant triad beg to resolve to the tonic?

        This topic could be argued in great length, and I could be wrong in my classification of art/music appreciation. What I meant by context in this case is that if you were raised in some place without music, or perhaps atonal music, you might have a different reaction to listening to something like a Beethoven symphony. In the distant future, music may take a new form and tonality may lose meaning — so creating art/music that doesn’t depend on context seems unlikely to me.

        • aj says:

          Re: I wonder if tone-deaf people can appreciate music.

          I agree again — I meant the context in which the work was created, however, not the one in which you were raised. (I really mean “process”, and I’ve used these two words interchangeably, which I shouldn’t.)

    • Schoenberg

      I always loved Schoenberg’s string quartets (including the later, strongly atonal ones), long before I had any notion of aesthetic context for them, or knowledge about atonality or serialism.

      They’re beautiful pieces of music, and I think they stand alone pretty well. I’d compare them to a Goya painting; most people might not like it, but they recognize it as great art.

      A lot of other serial and atonal works, on the other hand, would be more comparable to a Duchamp or Mondrian; beyond not particularily like them, a lot of people wouldn’t even call them art (I am not such a person).

      I dunno, Schoenberg and Berg and Webern, despite their unusual harmonic and melodic material, are still very much in the tradition of Bach-Beethoven-Brahms-Wagner-Debussy-etc, and I think that comes across in their music, even to the unschooled listener. Cage, on the other hand, is something very different, and I’d agree with you about being unable to appreciate his music without context.

      More in another comment.

  8. Anonymous says:

    PanPan says the closebutton in the Mudd Library makes the door close faster.


  9. I’ll take “The Penis Mightier” for $600, Alex.

    First off, the close-door button: In evans hall (home of the math department at UC Berkeley, to any non-berkeley readers), the close button has immediate effect *if* you wait until the door is fully open. However, you can just as well push the button of the floor you’re headed to; it will have the same effect. Also worth noting, on some floors in evans, the elevator call buttons are broken in such a way that they can light up without actually calling the elevator. Best to press them a few times to make sure.

    Small-state bias: a personal favorite. Inherently unfair, and yet a wonderful thing. It’s my experience that the best (most independent, unbound to partisan politics or corporate bribery) senators come from small states. Vermont has two wonderful senators, Jim Jeffords and Pat Leahy. Licoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins or Maine are some other favorites. I don’t know anything at all about Wyoming’s two senators.

    To be fair, there are some small state senators of whom I strongly disapprove (*cough* Ted Stevens *cough* *cough*), and big state senators who seem to do a pretty good job (as in california). But in general, small state senators seem to operate much more independently of the big money partisan political machine then their cohorts, and intuitively, there are good reasons to expect this to be the case. So, I’m inclined to feel that the small-state bias can be a good check on politics-as-usual – see, for example, the (regrettably short-lived) effect of Jim Jeffords leaving the Republican Party; I can’t imagine a big-state senator ever doing such a thing.

    Comment continued below; I exceeded the LJ limit of 4300 characters…

    • aj says:

      Re: I’ll take “The Penis Mightier” for $600, Alex.

      I’ve had no such luck with the elevators here… perhaps Soda is different.

      As for the small-state senators being good, yeah I can see that. It’s true that to be elected, senators from larger states probably have to cater to larger interests and in general have to be more slimy.

      However, this “good thing” exists only because we have a Senate in the first place. If we had a House-based Congress, then each representative would be representing roughly the same number of people, and so there will be less pressure by big lobbyists, etc. simply because no representative has that much influence (i.e. for the same reason that small-state Senators are good). I can’t see how that’s any worse.

      • Re: I’ll take “The Penis Mightier” for $600, Alex.

        I’d almost agree with you, but there’s a big factor that serves to amplify partisan politics: the way in which representatives are elected by politically-chosen districts. This has a major destabilizing effect on political discourse (see, among others, the wonderful article in the new yorker from a few months ago).

        In the senate, by comparison, representatives are elected on a statewide basis; there’s no opportunity to rig the districts to your political advantage, other than encouraging people to get up and move. Thus why representatives tend to be extremely partisan, despite their small districts, whereas senators are much more centrist and cooperative. I don’t think any of us would dispute that the senate is in general a much more effective legislative body.

        I think the ideal solution would be soemthing like this: have two houses. In the first, representatives are apportioned according to the size of the states, but there’s a single statewide election – if the state gets N representatives, then the top N vote-getters in the election get seats. In the second house, have a fixed number (say, 100) of representatives, who are elected without regard to state borders at all, from districts selected by an unbiased (and open-source) clustering algorithm that divides the US population evenly in to the most regularly-shaped districts possible.

        The first would be somewhat akin to the house, sort of a hybrid of the current american house of representatives and the german bundestag. The difference from the current system though, is that instead of electing only relatively partisan candidates, you’d get a spread from the entire political spectrum; it would give a nice boost to “third” (and fourth and fifth…) party voices.

        The second would be akin to the senate, but would eliminate AJ’s problems with small-state bias.

        Of course, neither of these will ever come to pass, so I’ll happily keep the senate as is.

        • aj says:

          Re: I’ll take “The Penis Mightier” for $600, Alex.

          I think your proposal is terrific.

          Though I’d argue first that one big reason that the House is much less effective is that the ridiculously short two-year terms mean that the representatives are campaigning virtually non-stop, and also since they are constantly being subject to review they are much less likely to take radical positions on anything.

          So I think lengthening the House term to six years (something that could be done) would be a great idea.

          However, I totally agree that gerrymandering is a ridiculous problem, but there are non-partisan solutions, such as the one you propose. (I think it could be tweaked to respect state borders.) This is the kind of thing that the US Supreme Court could (but irritatingly chooses not to) regulate.

          The top-N vote getters idea is cool. The argument there is that your political or ideological concerns outweigh your geographic ones (in that the representative is going to represent your ideas, not your home county, since he could be from anywhere in the state), and I think it stands pretty well. You don’t often look to the national government to effect change in your hometown. (Although, of course, looking at farm subsidies and the like, it clearly happens.)

          • Re: I’ll take “The Penis Mightier” for $600, Alex.

            With regard to six-year house terms, the only concern is that the house is supposed to be more flexible and quick-changing than the senate is, which is a good idea in theory, even if it doesn’t quite work out in practice. It seems like having 6 year house terms as well could lead to a government that’s not responsive enough to the “will of the people”.

            Also, if the top-N thing ever got implemented, I think it would help ease the problem; you would no longer have to *win* your race, just to be one of the top N candidates, so maybe you could focus more on being a legislator. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn’t change anything. Maybe 3 year terms? One year to actually legislate, one year to raise money, one year to run? :?P

            You’re right, of course, that it would be possible to bias clustering to respect state borders in a fairly easy manner.

  10. If this Penis Mightier of yours really works, well, I’ll buy a dozen!

    … continued from previous

    Finally, the art question: it’s been a favorite of mine for years now, since I was about 15. I tend to think of breaking a work down into “art” and “Art”. The former is the physical object created, and can be evaluated without regard to the process of creation, aesthetic context, etc, and corresponds to the notion of “[Aa]rt” up until the late 19th century (in the west). The latter is the act of creating the former, both the conception in the mind of the artist, and the physical construction of the work, and corresponds roughly to the 20th century ideal of artistic creation.

    Thus, we can look at something like a Gerhard Richter painting, and recognize that it is nice as “art”, though perhaps not particularly breathtaking compared to a truly excellent photograph (or perhaps it is, depending on your preferences). However, evaluated as “Art”, the painting is intriguing; who would decide to paint photorealistically when it’s been out of aesthetic style for years? and to present it as art? and the laboriousness of the job? It’s fascinating.

    At the other extreme, consider a craftsman painter who does pretty rural landscapes. Not very exciting as “Art”, but the “art” is potentially quite skilled. (Note that I don’t mean “art” to be synonymous with “craft”; the two are related, but different in a way that is hard to explain).

    I’m not sure that people so much conflate “art” with “Art”, as they *associate* the two; the “art”, combined with some information about the artist, after all, is the best available record of the process of creation. This association seems to be market-driven; it is what provides an original with value, but makes a reproduction a cheap commodity.

    Two wonderful short stories that get at all this without ever delving into art theory: “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, and “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”, both from Jorge Luis Borges’ collection “Ficciones”. Definitely, definitely read them if you haven’t already.

    My personal favorite issue in all this “art” nonsense: how does non-human (computer or animal created) art fit in? is it art at all? David Cope, at UCSC, has a computer program that can imitate the style of a composer with pretty good success, or develop new styles on its own. Douglas Hofstater (sp? there’s a “D” in there somewhere…) has written about it, but fundamentally doesn’t seem to get it. (I’m no fan of Hofstater). There are working painters who are elephants, cats, and monkeys, some of which produce intriguing works, and have clear personal styles. I very nearly bought a wonderful elephant painting last spring, which was certainly better than most human works I’ve seen, and had a lot of the energy in the lines and intriguing composition of a picasso sketch.

    Anyway, my $.02.

    • aj says:

      Re: If this Penis Mightier of yours really works, well, I’ll buy a dozen!

      (btw, nice SNL reference :)

      So what’s the artistic community’s take on non-human art? Derisive? Appreciative? It’s interesting…

      • Re: If this Penis Mightier of yours really works, well, I’ll buy a dozen!

        Both? Like anything, it depends on who you ask. Some people (the sensible ones, in my book) take the “if it looks like art, sounds like art, smells like art, it is art” approach (these tend to be the more marxist / modernist theorists and artists). There’s also a whole lot of people who are really attached to the romantic ideal of the lone artist expressing some profound emotion in a Meisterwerk; this viewpoint doesn’t seem to leave much room for art created by a cold calculating machine, or even a warm, (comparitively) non-sentient kittycat.

  11. Anonymous says:

    IM rejection


    That was me; I was talking to you from the SN I use at work. Some brother you are ;-)

    Miss you!


    • aj says:

      Re: IM rejection

      Yeah, dude, some SISTER you are, causing me all that anxiety ;).

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: IM rejection

        hahaha… that’s my job:) i’m glad you’ve recognized one of my many talents… another one, of course, being modesty.

  12. Anonymous says:


    you’re really cool. except that you forgot to call me tonight, which makes you slightly less cool…but still cool enough.