Thursday, March 31, 2005

ARMILIA. A mysterious underground city located at the North Obscure Pole. The only part of it ever seen looks like a cross between an armiliar sphere and a complicated clock. It appears that it can be used to manipulate both time and weather. The serious breakdown of 746 AT may have been caused by a little boy named Bronislaw Kunkely, believed to possess paranormal powers.

This is one entry in the Encyclopedia of Obscure Cities. This English introduction provides only a minor glimpse of what is an enormous and detailed invented Universe. The main site Urbicande is not so navigable; be careful or you might get lost within its structure.

One obvious inspiration is that of Italo Calvino and his Invisible Cities, a book composed of vivid stories of different cities, each both peculiar and ravishing. (Or, perhaps they are all facets of the same city)

There is of course a city named Calvani:

One of the loveliest of the Obscure Cities....Calvani is a vegetarian city, and no exception is tolerated. It produces great wines and subtle perfumes, and rare woods are used as currency. Because so much of the city is made of glass, window-washers are very powerful there.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I long ago abandoned Google's Orkut after having been an early member. Occasionally I still get "friend" requests from people I dont know, mainly Brazilians. I always say Yes because...well, why not?

About a year ago I accepted a request from a random Brazilian woman named Nancy. Soon after that she started emailing me (and her 300 other contacts) these random little messages, mostly what could be called life-advice. Stuff like:

It depends us! Education , Experience and memories are the three things , no one can take away from you . then , Things are as they are , it is you who label them as beautiful or ugly ..

Since I had called her a friend, she was able to email these little missives directly into my inbox. At first I was getting maybe one or two a week and I started to consider whether perhaps I should un-friend this woman. But, I came to start liking their quirky style, their simple platitude like nature as well as the gross grammatical errors and misspelling which make it clear she is putting these together herself. Here are some more of her happiness koans:

Happiness is a state of mind and can be achieved by cultivating the mind and not by possessing materials...

and, an untypically longer one:

"We all want to fall in love. Why? Because that experience makes us feel completely alive. Where every sense is heightened, every emotion is magnified, our everyday reality is shattered and we are flying into the heavens. It may only last a moment, an hour, an afternoon. But that doesn't diminish its value. Because we are left with memories that we treasure for the rest of our lives."

True friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.
Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend..
its a gift for me

Anyways, recently I realized that I had not received anything from Nancy since January. Perhaps she had wandered off, i thought, found some new forum to disperse her messages. I didnt realize I had actually started to miss her little notes and their strange little grammar. So, today, i was a bit relieved when I opened my mailbox and read this message, from a familiar sender:

Duty makes usdo things well but love makes us do then beautiful...

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Cosmological fragments:

1. The ancient astronomer Hipparchus compiled a sky catalog which has never been seen.

Recently, however, it was discovered that the Universe of Hipparchus has been in front of us all along. A statue known as The Famese Atlas which sits in a museum in Naples, has held it in its arms.

2. I've always liked this short poem that the Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote as a homage to Claudius Ptolemy:

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Cosmic Triangle: The Fate of the Universe explained

The diagram above was first introduced by astrophysicists last year as a graphical way of representing the current state of the future of the Universe. You may have heard of exotic phrases like cosmic expansion, dark matter, dark energy and other grand terms. The Cosmic Triangle compresses all these different fates into a handy and colorful chart.

The Universe, as we know, is expanding. But, is it slowing down? Is it speeding up?What are those strange symbols on the edges of the chart and what do they have to do with it?
I will try to explain.

Omega-M: Matter Density
The Matter Density is a statement about how much gravitational matter is in the Universe. We have the tools today to estimate how much this is, although we also believe that Matter comes in two different types:

Visible Matter
Visible Matter is the Matter we are all famliar with. Matter is what we are made of. Matter is also light. It is also what we call Anti-Matter.
We can estimate how much of it there is in this Universe just by looking at the Stars. We know how heavy the Stars, like our own Sun, are and we know about how many Suns and other stuff is in a typical Galaxy and, finally, we know about how many Galaxies there are in the Cosmos. So, if we total all this up we get a number which is... not very much.

Dark Matter
It turns out that when Astrophysicists were modeling Galaxies they came up with something surprising. Galaxies tend to bunch up together and form Galactic Clusters. These Clusters are like big Gravitational systems, bound in the way that our Earth is bound to our Sun, but on a much grander scale.
But when they tried to model these Clusters they found that the Galaxies were moving in such a way that they seemed to be responding to more than the Matter we could see. The Galaxies in a Cluster are moving too fast! They should be flying off but they are not. Something is holding them together. But its not something that we can see. We call it Dark Matter but that doesnt mean that its like anything that we know. Its just a term for what should be there.

In any case, even if you calculate how much Dark Matter there is and add it to the stuff we can see, it is not enough to really affect the Universe in any significant way. That is, all other things being equal, all these objects in the Universe are not enough to slow the Universe down, to reign it in.

Omega-K: Curvature
The Curvature Parameter is a measure of the shape of our Universe. Our Universe has three dimensions but it also has a shape in a higher-dimensional space. The particular shape of the Universe strongly affects its ultimate fate. Essentially, there are three possibilities for the shape: Open, Closed and Flat. An Open Universe will keep expanding forever. A Closed Universe is about to shut its doors; the waiters are serving the last bits of coffee and someone has showed up with a mop. A Flat Universe sits right in between, expanding forever, but just barely.
All indications are that our Universe is or is nearly Flat (we measure this by looking at our Universe's past and how it has evolved). This means that it might be exactly Flat.
One of my old astrophysics teachers, a British guy who wore a tight collar and flailed his arms a lot, used to say: "If our Universe is nearly flat, then it must be Flat. Why would it be nearly-something if it were not that thing!"
It sounds convincing. But the same argument can be made about our Earth and how its orbit is nearly a circle. We have a history of searching for perfection and then discovering that its the deviations which are more fascinating.

Omega-Lambda: Vacuum Energy
Now this is interesting. In recent years, it has been discovered that our Universe may not only be expanding but also accelerating! But, since Gravity and Matter can only slow the Universe down, what is making it speed up? The simple answer is: We don't know. But instead of admitting that, it is easier to give it a name and then talk about it. The name for this mysterious energy that may be propelling the Universe outward is: Dark Energy
If something is making the entire Universe expand then it is probably not something that sits at a particular place; It is likely everywhere, intrinsic to the Universe itself. And so this Dark Energy can also be thought of as Energy of the Vacuum, that is, a repulsive force which is part of the very nature of Space itself.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy have similar names but they have nothing in common. If anything, they are opposites of each other. Dark Matter, like regular Matter, is slowing the Universe down. Dark Energy, this anti-pressure, is speeding the Universe up.

The Cosmic Triangle
Based on what we currently know, our Universe sits at the circle labeled Lambda-CDM (Cold Dark Matter). That is, we live in a Universe that is fairly flat, has very little matter, some sort of mysterious repulsive force and, by a clear margin, looks like it will keep expanding forever.

But this is all subject to change. One of the major assumptions is that information we have about the Universe now is even valid when talking about its past or future. It is like those spaceships with tailfins from 1950's era futuristic visions: What we know about the future can quickly become outdated.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Too Many Names

Mondays are meshed with Tuesdays
and the week with the whole year.
Time cannot be cut
with your weary scissors,
and all the names of the day
are washed out by the waters of night.

No one can claim the name of Pedro,
nobody is Rosa or Maria, all of us are dust or sand,
all of us are rain under rain.
They have spoken to me of Venezuelas,
Of Chiles and Paraguays;
I have no idea what they are saying.
I know only the skin of the earth
and I know it is without a name.

When I lived amongst the roots
they pleased me more than flowers did,
and when I spoke to a stone
it rang like a bell.

It is so long, the spring
which goes on all winter.
Time lost its shoes.
A year is four centuries.

When I sleep every night,
what am I called or not called?
And when I wake, who am I
if I was not I while I slept?

This means to say that scarcely
have we landed into life
than we come as if new-born;
let us not fill our mouths
with so many faltering names
with so much sad formalities
with so much pompous letters,
with so much of yours and mine,
with so much signing of papers.

I have a mind to confuse things,
unite them, bring them to birth,
mix them up, undress them,
until the light of the world
has the oneness of the ocean,
a generous, vast wholeness,
a crepitant fragrance.

— Pablo Neruda

Monday, March 21, 2005

Yesterday was the vernal equinox, one of the two moments in the year when the Sun crosses the celestial equator. Days are as long as nights and so the world can be said to be balanced.

I was at the San Francisco Exploratorium as part of their Chichen Itza event. A team of people were broadcasting from the pyramid at Chichen Itza to San Francisco. The Sun rose in the sky and at the moment of the equinox itself, the alignment of the pyramids cast the shadow of a serpent upon one of the staircases.

I was there speaking and answering questions about the Mayan Calendar system.

My favorite analogy for the structure of Mayan time is wheels within wheels. The Mayans like us, were attentive to the cyclical nature of most events. The cycles of the Moon, the Sun and the Seasons were like great wheels in slow revolution.

The Tzolkin calendar, or religious calendar, consisted of 13 numbered days and 20 named days. These two wheels turning together made up a 260-day calendar.

The Haab or civil calendar was 18 months of 20-day periods along with an extra 5 days for a total of 365 days, not unlike our calendar.

A specific day could be named with both its Tzolkin name and its Haab name. Because of the different lengths of these calendars, a day was unique within a 52-year period. This 52-yr period was the Mayan Calendar Round. Every 52 years the Mayans waited to see if the Gods would choose to renew their world or to destroy it.

For longer periods, yet another calendar, The Long Count, was used. The smallest wheel in the Long Count was a period of 20 days. The next was 18*20 (360) followed by 20*18*20, followed by 20*20*18*20, followed by 13*20*20*18*20. This longest period of days amounted to just over 5,000 years and is known as a Mayan Era. It was the longest period that had a direct effect on human affairs although longer periods were known and named by the Maya, including a cycle of 63 Million years known as the alautun.

From historical records, the beginning of the last Mayan era can be dated to 3114 BC. Counting forward, this places the end of the current Mayan era in December of 2012 AD.

Besides these well-known calendars, the Mayans had many others. It seems that the Mayans were intoxicated by both Time and Mathematics. One of my favorite cycles is one of 819 days (a little over two years) which has an unknown name or purpose.

The 819 day cycle is the product of three different smaller cycles: A 7-day cycle which was the Mayan Representation of Earth, a 9-day cycle which was the Mayan number of Heaven or Gods (and was represented by the Nine Mayan Lords of the Night) and, finally, a 13 day cycle which represented the Inferno. (It seems that the number 13 has been universally unloved.)

The diagrams we had prepared to help people visualize all of this was a large assembly of gears. The Universe depicted as a conjunction of all these different cycles, as a ticking mechanism whose parts, when they align, can signal transcendence or catastrophe.

Friday, March 18, 2005

A real-life acquiantance, Annelene, starts her own journal. About environmentalism. About the Spiritual Quest.
Audio as an Enchantment

Witness is an audio sculpture by the artist Susan Hiller. Tiny speakers of various lengths hang down from the ceiling. From a distance it seems like the babble of a crowd but, unlike a crowd, people are not trying to make themselves heard individually. So, each voice is more moderated, more rythmic. If you listen carefully, the combined pitches of all the steady voices sound a bit like music.

Each speaker is telling a story. For this particular sculpture, Hiller collected hundreds of accounts of people's encounter with extraterrestrials.

If you do not get a chance to see this work then you can buy the book from Artangel, which not only includes all the stories in written form but also an audio CD. First a man with a deep voice and a thick New Zealand accent tells us a story. Followed by a woman with a delicate British accent and another woman with a lazy Southern american accent. They are different ages and sexes and come from different areas and economic classes. But, their stories of abduction sound eerily the same.

As Hiller says:

I got very interested in the way that people see things and how they tell stories about what they’ve seen - sometimes it’s quite outrageous. In former times these would have been stories about angels or ghosts. Now people always tell you these UFO stories. Then I began doing this research and found out that there were just thousands of these stories.... As you walk through you’re hearing little bits of stories. I was very precise about not letting it deviate from a formal coherence. But because each voice is as individual as a fingerprint, there are no two voices that are alike in the whole piece; it becomes much more than I could have ever imagined.


The Quiet American has been releasing unquiet one-minute vacations for over two years. Its an audio presence delivered to your ears:

One-minute vacations are unedited recordings of somewhere, somewhen. Sixty seconds of something else....If it's your birthday, this is your present.


The Audium is a sound-sculpture place here in San Francisco, a project organized and run by one man who believes strongly in the solidity of sound:

We are conceived in sound
we grow
and emerge in its wake.
Our history is a collection
of sound sensations,
experiences, emotions
All uniting into an aural identity.
It is this ocean
of recollections, sound images,
dreams, memories
We share.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

In 1997 I met John Mack in New York City. He was in town giving lectures on UFO abductions and had already gained notoriety because of his association with Harvard (In fact, I met him in the lounge of the NYC Harvard club) He gave a small lecture that evening to a small group of us. There were about eight of us there that evening, leaning intently forward in our armchairs, listening to him tell us about the classic symptoms of abduction while he played videos for us of children and other "informants" that he had taped on a recent visit to South Africa.

The children, I recall, had the look not of amazement but of quiet reticence, as if by talking they were breaking a secret promise. One girl calmly told the camera about gigantic objects descending from the sky and opening themselves up to eject a few small dark men who moved like creatures made from lightning and talked to the children in strange tongues.

The story she told was fantastic and yet as she told it, she seemed to be reciting it, laying out a simple set of facts. As I listened to her, it reminded me of when a child tells you an invented story, at once imaginary yet also plainly told, as when they tell you all about the secret double life of a favorite pet.

i also recall that she visibly trembled at one point as she remembered the cold grasp of one of the strangers. What exactly had she seen?


As a child I had that strong will to believe. I had a theory that if the world sometimes seemed mundane it is because adults had wished it so. They had cast out all of the magic from this world in a sort of vast exorcism and magic now lived precariously, warily existing among the shadows.

Its with this frame of mind that I started reading books. To me, Spaceships and Icebergs were as real as Magicians and Demons. They all existed together out there, in a hazy half-reality at the edges of the visible world.


In "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar", Roald Dahl advises us that this is not a story but a true account. He once met an Indian yogi who had developed a supernatural sense of vision. He had the ability to see right through everyday objects as if they were as transparent as glass.

The yogi instructs us as to how to develop these same abilities. You must stare into a candle flame. Not just stare but really look at it and focus your gaze. The path to supernatural vision is to practice looking deep into the candle flame until you have walked into the flame, until you have walked right through it and your eyes have received the gift of true vision.

Roald Dahl's friend, Henry Sugar, manages to penetrate the fire and develop this magic sight. He takes his gift and heads to casinos where he is now able to look through playing cards. He makes a lot of money but also realizes, as the story descends to its conclusion, how little money really matters. By the end of the story, Henry Sugar is a deeply changed man.

I must have spent hours staring into the flame.


MB said to me the other day:

"In youth, we know nothing. But we do understand that this world is full of rules. Some make sense but most are completely incomprehensible. So what do we do? We start out in this world as mimics, as parrots. Parrots is a good word. Children have the instincts of birds."

I said: But then you grow up?

"But if you have even the slightest sense of depth inside you then you soon discover that these words, these tools, these things exist somehow apart from you. Inside of you is this turbulent mind, full of opposing ideas, of fragments, of vague conceptions and these ideas gather in your head like a storm. But you can't release these ideas into the world because the only form of expression you have are these words and this linear grammar. Words can never convey who you are can they?
They can never convey this You, this secret you."

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


I just found out today that a college friend of mine has died. I found out through a mutual friend.

He was terrifyingly brilliant. You could sense that anything was within his reach. Yet he also seemed a bit restless and sometimes you could see in his face a haunted look, like that of a man on the run.

In the mid-90's he tried to recruit me for one of his Internet companies. I didnt join him but he ended up making millions. Later, he lost those millions. Much later, he made millions again. He had that magic power as if his world obeyed a different set of rules than yours or mine.

Friends and I noticed that he seemed to be living life at twice the speed that we were. He struggled hard with addiction and substance abuse, problems which held him back from his own great ambitions. Whereas we saw a shining light, he was struggling against his own darkness.

I dont know much about how he died except that his body was found in a "hotel room in Venezuela" (according to one of his former wives) with all the imagined backstory that that conjures up regarding what he was up to in his final days. I was also told that he had collapsed to such a mental state that he was not the person "we once knew." It is clear that the decision to leave this world was his own even if that decision had the clarity of fog.

He was only 36. One of those cases of a life lived twice as fast but, unfortunately, only half as long.

Rest in peace, RD.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Two odd Flash thingies:

The Art Machine
Using a Myst-like interface explore some abstract questions about Modern Art.

Tropical America
"Your journey begins as the sole survivor of a terrible massacre - you must find four pieces of evidence to bring justice to the memory of your small village." I found it a bit unsettling but oddly compelling.