Saturday, May 31, 2003

Rain Walker

I just submitted this at Portland Stories, a local community blog for posting stories of our shared experience here in Stumptown. I am copying it here for my own records.


Summer, 1991. My mate and I spent a month on the road, seeking a new home. Each day we trundled our poor little hatchback, heavily laden with all of our possessions, farther north, farther west. We'd never seen so much green... the trees were green (we didn't know that they left strips of trees alongside the roads when they clearcut, to maintain the illusion of forests), the mountains were green, hell even the rocks were green, there was moss growing on the frickin *asphalt*... we felt like we'd stumbled into some crazy Dr Seuss terraforming project. We actually pulled over at one point to photograph a ten-inch-diameter mushroom (which I later learned was a 'boletus edulis'), because we knew nobody back home would believe us that such a thing existed.

We'd left behind the deserts of Utah (the geographic desert of the southern half of the state, and the cultural desert of the north), following some internal compass that had been compelling us northwesterly for years... we spent a few months in Los Angeles visiting family, then wound our way up the coast. When we got to Portland, the car decided that our journey was over, so here we stayed.

I remember walking around in the rain, shoulders ineffectually hunched, head bent low... thinking: this isn't rain, this incessant pissing trickling drizzling haze... this is *not* rain. The drops don't even really fall to the ground, they just hang in the air, waiting for you to walk into them so they can cling to you, eventually gathering enough droplets together to form little rivulets of frigid fluid that drip down your back and into your underwear.

To add insult to injury, every time I read the paper or watched the news I heard them talking about the 'drought'. Drought? Drought?!?!? It rained like 150 days that year, and they said it was a drought? In Utah, in 1976, we had a drought... people *died*, crops just crumbled to dust, a real plague-of-locusts summer in the Holy Land, with wackos who wouldn't shut up about the similarities between the weather and certain doom-filled passages from Revelations. If Oregon was going to call that mushy moldiness a drought, I wondered what it would take for them to name something a 'flood'. (Turns out I didn't have long to wait for an answer to that one.)

Walking downtown in my characteristic hunch, I passed one of Portland's famed coffee-houses, where the brave denizens of the city were actually sitting outside in the rain, hip and unaffected. One conversation stopped as I walked by, and two pairs of eyes turned to watch me pass... out of the corner of my eye I saw that the fellow on the right had wrapped his arms around himself and hunched up his shoulders, comically chattering his teeth and trembling in imitation of me, as the fellow on the left laughed, shook his head, and scornfully said 'fucking tourists'.

I made a few friends at the university, and I told one of them about this experience. He was very matter-of-fact about the whole thing: hunching up your shoulders just adds shoulder ache to dampness and misery, and is a definite indicator of non-native status. He hesitantly suggested that the time I had spent in Los Angeles was quite a black mark (evidently qualifying me as a 'Californian here to raise the property values and take all the jobs'), and that I should make some effort to remove the more obvious signs of my tainted past.

While the social implications of his comments didn't really faze me, the practical implications did: I really was quite uncomfortable walking around in the rain. The locals made it look easy, as though they were unaware that it was raining. I decided that I too needed to have this zen-like ability to walk unaffected through the drizzle, so each time it rained (this is back before El Neener and global warming had negated most of the weather) I set aside some time to practice walking in the rain.

When my friends asked what I was doing, and I was foolish enough to tell them, they all looked at me a bit strangely, but they let me do my thing, watching from under sheltering eaves as I practiced: stand up straight, relax the shoulders... put your chin up, and s*l*o*w*l*y walk forward. That was the real trick... too fast and you look like you are trying to get out of the rain, and that blows the whole 'unaffected' scene... so take it slow, very mellow. Before too long I was making it look easy, and I found that it really was much more comfortable than my previous mode of walking in the rain.

Now, years later, I actually enjoy going for walks in the rain. I like the feel of the watery sheen the rain leaves on my face, and the kaleidoscopic glints that shine from the droplets that cling to my eyelashes. Walking through Laurelhurst Park, watching the patterns the rain makes on the surface of the pond, I feel very relaxed, very at home.

Now when I'm out walking, I like to watch the other people around me: some of them, like me, walk with the Buddha Nature, just soaking it all in... while others scurry about, wielding umbrellas or newspapers, trudging along in jaw-clenched hunch-backed defiance of the elements.

Fucking tourists.

Diary of a lab rat

I went to the doctor today... she adjusted my various drugs, and added some new ones. I'm sort of in a holding pattern until I get in to the pain management clinic in July; the doc is trying to get me accustomed to the idea that I may have this pain for the rest of my life, and the only thing they may be able to do for me is find some combination of drugs and procedures that achieves a balance somewhere between "in pain all the time" and "stoned all the time". Oh the joy.

It is strange watching how my perceptions change when I am laid up. Time seems to stretch out quite a bit... I'll send email to someone, and if it takes them a couple of days to reply I feel like it was an eternity. I'll check at like 12:05am, then again at 10pm and be surprised that it is the same comic; the days are just too long. I think I am wired incorrectly... it would sure be nice if the good times seemed to last forever, and the times that sucked just flew by.

Friday, May 30, 2003

The story so far

About 12 years ago I decided I needed a change, and I just got up and left. I wasn't in a very good headspace, and felt that I wasn't much good to anyone anyway, so the decision wasn't too hard to make. And of course I had Anne-Marie with me, so it wasn't really a terrifying move.

We traveled around Asia for a few months, then moved to the northwest US... we both finally went back to school, and then got caught up in our professional careers. Somewhere along the line I returned to India, where I ended up in one of those wrong place/wrong time situations when the Indians were simultaneously celebrating their 'victory' over Pakistan at the Kargil Pass and their development of the Agni missile; they chose to celebrate their nationalist pride by beating the hell out of every foreigner they could find, and I ended up with a broken rib, a bloody cough for a couple of weeks, and some nerve damage that may never go away. I'm on alot of pain 'killers' (I wish) and stuff to help me sleep, theoretically.

My first job after college *sucked*. Two weeks before I started the job I watched the movie 'Office Space', and I laughed until I cried. A few months later I watched it again, and I just cried... it was such a horrible dehumanizing place, run by soulless robots. I was there almost 3 years, and the stress and depression just kept getting worse and worse (which made the physical pain worse as well). Finally I couldn't take any more, and I quit. I tried to get laid off (everyone else was getting laid off), but just couldn't do it. Concerns like 'unemployment pay' were insignificant compared to the stresses I was going through. It got so bad that Anne-Marie and I were locked in discussions about whether or not I was going to continue living (I took the stance that suicide ended my pain and got her a big chunk of insurance money [they told me the first day of work that their great insurance program even covered suicide... I asked if that was an option they had to use much, and they just laughed it off. SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE, folks...], and she of course wasn't having any of it, the poor little irrational thing).

That was 8 months ago. In the time since then, my physical pain has been getting worse every day; it's very debilitating. Things are slightly better if I don't move too much, so I get alot of time to think, surf the web, and read.

Lately I've been looking up old friends.

There are a few people who I lost contact with that I wish I hadn't... people who affected me in some way. Most of them probably never knew how much they meant to me, since I wasn't very communicative of such things back then. Some of them are gone now; others might as well be... time has changed us all.

I recently wrote to Stefene, a friend from way back... I just shot an email out into the void, and luckily she replied. It was so damn good to hear from her. I think I never really got to know her as well as I could have because I was so neurotic; my negative view of myself and my very positive view of her didn't leave much room to really forge a deep relationship. She was beautiful and sad, like a princess in a story (I kid you not). I always felt closer to her than I ever expressed. It has been great comparing life notes with her... I think I learn more about myself than I do about her when she writes me, though... her perspective on things always makes me think. And since I have no life right now, I really look forward to these views from the outside.

I've also been writing to Julie, a dear old friend (we probably could have been more, but we were both too insecure to really make it work). She is raising a family in New York, which seems to be quite the journey... more than I could handle I'm afraid. She's one of the smartest and most human people I've ever met; I am very lucky to be able to talk with her.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

A Good Night

We went to see Liz Phair and The Flaming Lips... it was incredible. One of our new friends took us to this really nice restaurant (which she was reviewing for CitySearch), in which we were pretty clearly the only heterosexual people; the rest of the crowd was pretty evenly divided between bears, drags, and dykes. They had a piano bar and a very mellow atmosphere, great food, and I even had a little wine (I usually don't drink, but in anticipation of the show later that night I thought I could use some boost to my pain meds). After dinner we went to the concert at the Crystal Ballroom, this 100-year-old place with chandeliers and baroque decor, with a huge dance floor that was polished smooth by the hems of ladies dresses long before I was born, now a slam pit when the Portland hip can be bothered to dance (they usually just stand there trying to look deep and unaffected).

Liz Phair was outstanding... the Flaming Lips had set up a camera attached to the microphone, with the video stream being broadcast on a screen that filled the back of the stage, so there was an infinite regression of Liz on the screen, and she is such a good performer, and beautiful as well. She played a couple of new songs, then cranked out a bunch of the older stuff (which still rocks). A very mellow and joyful experience. When she was done, I felt that her performance alone was worth going to that show.

Then the Flaming Lips came on, and these guys don't just play music, they put on a *show*. They had these movies that were synched to the music they were playing, and Wayne Coyne, the lead singer, talked quite a bit between songs... they really went out of their way to balance the 'show' aspect by creating a more intimate environment between the songs... then they'd turn around and rip your brain out of your head again when the next song started. Their albums remind me of old Pink Floyd (in style, not in content), where each song is a story in itself, but if you listen to the whole album a greater story emerges, and you see that each song has its own place in the contextual landscape. I saw the Flaming Lips once before, in 1987 I think, and while it was a good show it was nothing compared to this one... they have really grown as a band, and figured out a few things about entertaining.

I had to take some extra pain meds to get through the night, but it was worth it... just getting out and being human for awhile was a joyful thing, and seeing such a good show topped it all off.

Each day is better than the next

Last night I spent alot of time with Anne-Marie; we installed the air conditioner in the guest room (which is where the TV is), worked on plans for some of our art projects (EL-wire lotus flowers for Burning Man), and watched 'Star Trek - Nemesis' (don't bother). Between her job and my sickness, we often go days at a time without really getting to hang out, so this was a great joy.

I just sent off another circuit board design to the board house... I'm an electrical engineer, or rather I guess I was one when I was employed, but now I am just a very well educated hobbyist. I'm doing some research into the things I didn't feel they explained well enough in school... if I go back for a Masters degree, I'll probably have my thesis done before I even start classes.

There is this old 'joke' about a drunk guy who is searching the ground near a streetlamp... someone passing by asked him what he was doing:

Drunk: "I'm looking for my watch."
Other guy: "Where did you lose it?"
Drunk: "Over there in the dark alley..."
Other guy: "So why aren't you looking for it over there?"
Drunk: "There's more light over here."

I feel like most of what I learned in college was 'more light over here' information... not very practical in the long run, but something they could test you on. I spent so much time doing the assigned work that I didn't have time to actually learn anything useful. I once asked a prof about some arcane aspect of what we were studying, and instead of admitting that he didn't know, he admonished me to not waste my time thinking about things that wouldn't be on the exam.

When I was studying electromagnetic field theory, we spent a hell of alot of time doing problems that involved infinite planes, infinitely long wires, and spherical capacitors. Real-world problems are very difficult to do, since anywhere there is a clearly defined edge, the math goes nuts. It's called a non-differentiable point... since alot of the math relies on field components that are either tangent or perpendicular to the surface, a non-differentiable point (which has no clearly defined tangent or perpendicular) gets very messy. So the solution, in academia, is to only choose problems that do not have these messy properties.

A capacitor is usually thought of as two conductive plates, separated by a thin non-conductive material (could be air, or some dielectric material). But plates have edges, and the math gets messy... so the academic solution is to think about spherical capacitors, where one sphere is nested in another, and somehow the charge on the inner sphere is magically accessed without poking any holes in the outer sphere. Clearly this is crap, but in my day I was an expert on spherical capacitors.

I sincerely hope I am never asked to solve a real-world problem in electromagnetic fields... I'm going to look pretty silly when the only tool I have in my mental toolbox is an imaginary and non-realizable academic fiction.

One of the classes I enjoyed the most in school was 'control theory'... how to model physical systems mathematically, and develop a control algorithm to get the system to do what you want it to do. My senior project (627KB PDF) was a flight computer for my university's amateur rocket group, and in a control sense a rocket is a type of inverted pendulum, like when you balance a broom on your hand. I have thought alot about inverted pendulum type problems... they have become the de-facto standard for testing control systems. The Segway is a recent popular example of an inverted pendulum control problem.

So, now, in my copious free time, I have been working on real-world inverted-pendulum control problems... and of course, I am finding that everything I thought I knew turns out to fall into the 'more light over here' class of problems.

At the root of the problem lies the issue of non-linearity, which is the most poorly named property... the class of 'linear' systems (such as the ones we studied in school) is so incomprehensibly small and irrelevant compared to the class of 'non-linear' systems, but they are much easier to solve, so they get most of the attention. It turns out that most real-world problems cannot be directly solved by the methods we were taught in school, which I am sad to say turned out to be a very big surprise for me.

One accepted method for solving these real-world problems is to develop the math right up to the point where the non-linearities block you from proceeding further, and then linearize the equations about some operating point (for instance, the operating point of an inverted pendulum might be an angle of zero degrees from vertical, and an angular momentum of zero). For very small deviations from this operating point, this estimation process works reasonably well... but for larger deviations, it all falls apart.

So anyway, I am applying this process to the projects I am working on, to see where they lead. If nothing else, I gain some knowledge about how the world works, and how little we really know about it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Portrait of the artist as a young insomniac

I can't sleep. Not just now; I can't sleep ever. I've tried going a few days without sleep medication... usually on the fourth or fifth night I finally pass out from exhaustion. This evening I took my sleeping pills, and nothing happened... 4 hours sitting here wishing I could sleep, but knowing it will not come. I was reading the blog of a friend, and I got this great idea: I'll make a blog. I've been pretty scornful of the proliferation of techniques for allowing people to communicate without actual live interaction; I think that I rely quite a bit on body language and facial expression to determine what the other person is saying, and I am wary of less personal media that give people the freedom to pretend to be something they are not.

So why make a blog? First, most of my interpersonal relationships seem to take place over email as it is, so apparently I am willing to accept a certain amount of risk regarding the lack of face-to-face communication. Second, I am not too worried that I will misrepresent myself; you'll see, no one would willingly pretend to be me.

Most importantly, I guess, is the recent revelation I have had regarding communities, be they blogs or villages or whatever. My friend Scott Vice (link above) was one of the most beautiful people I have ever known, and after his death I was stunned by the number of people, most of whom he had never met in meatspace, who came by his blog to express their shock and sorrow and stories. I didn't even know he had a blog; I didn't find out about it til after he was gone, and I was really blown away by the whole thing... his random notes, the story of his life in shortform... and the love he was getting from all of his cyberfriends.

I am truly grateful that I have the opportunity to read Scott's thoughts... he always had a tremendous sense of joy and mischievousness, and his intellect was unbounded. He turned me on to more books, movies, and music than anyone I have ever met. He was a rennaissance man.

I don't know if anyone will ever be grateful that my thoughts are posted here... if nothing else this will give me an excuse to sit down every so often and collect my thoughts into a coherent bundle, which isn't a bad thing to do, blog or no.

So: hi. I am Michael. This is my life. It's Groundhog Day... again.

*bonk* *bonk* is this thing on?

The inaugural post... and I have nothing witty or wise to say. What an auspicious beginning.