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March 3rd, 2003

Sometimes a memory to savor

Do you ever have the feeling that there are memories so delicious that you wish, but don't think, that you could put them on the page? It's not the ones in which particularly momentous things occur--for me, they're very little things indeed--a chaste night kissing a Canadian girl who roomed with my roommate's girlfriend (and whom I never saw again), or walking in my dress suit in London's Camden neighborhood on a rainy Sunday Summer early morning, with security alarms clanging all around, as if some movie cat burglar was going from store to store. When these things happen, they leave such a deep, atmospheric impression that just remembering them brings back a wave of nostalgia and pleasure. But they are moments whose meaning derives so much from my own inner workings, and how can that be placed on the page? I can tell you my stories, but how can I show why little things matter? Sometimes I journal the tiniest memories, and sometimes the memories even gain something for me once I put them in the journal. But sometimes the texture of the memory remains within me, and I wish I could share that texture with you.
I've always thought that one nice thing about being a scientist is the luxury of working within a defined universe of data. I imagine this is also the bane of that existence as well--ensuring that one is working in a closed system, so that the conclusions really follow from the conditions.

In my business, the "ground rules" create some definition for the data at issue. For example, I got in today an appeal brief filed by an opposing party to appeal a positive result I obtained last year. Along with the appeal brief came a copy of the appendix which suffices as the "record" on appeal. This is a copy of all the things that happened in the trial court. In this particular form of appeal (and of course this post is not intended as legal advice or education), the parties will draft their legal briefs based on construction of what happened within this slender 142 page volume of documents.

Without taking the argument to the point of absurdity, all that happens in this appeal is a mere construction of a universe consisting of only 142 pages. I'll be drafting my response, making constant references to the facts as they exist in this little sheltered universe.

Life outside the defined forms of scientific method or stylized affairs like law tends not to be so simple. One cannot read one passage in a book and get the author's inner mind. One cannot hear a single NPR piece and imagine that one understands the complex of an entire situation. One cannot read a LiveJournal and know the journalist's real context.

A fellow named Kosko has suggested in many contexts that we need not have the kind of precision to fully "get" all situations, but instead need only the bases to make informed "fuzzy" approximations. Like all "important theories" run amok, this theory has some things to commend it, but also some limitations.

But I'm intrigued by the notion nonetheless that we must all absorb as much information as we can, and then extrapolate wildly. I'm impressed sometimes with one concept of "mindfulness", in the context in which one strives to be aware of each temptation to extrapolation, and one works to just accept what is before one without any. But ultimately, I think the approximations and conjectures are necessary to functioning in life.

I'm always intrigued by how much must be supplied by the reader in any analysis of any group of words. Only the most elementary ideas can be expressed without shared assumptions and conjectures. Once one leaves that "limited data" platform, the weights and numbers of the thing, then the reader must be a co-conspirator with the author.

I cultivate in myself the ability to try to make effective inferences and approximations based on limited data, as I'm sure most people do. I'm always interested, too, in extending these approximations into areas that for some are absolutes.

In matters of faith, I find that some treat as absolutes "approximate somethings" that cannot be fully defined at all. All wisdom may indeed be clouded by desire, but the desire I find most tempting is the desire for absolutes. I can understand how the uncertain moment can be so disconcerting, and that a pleasing clarity is preferable to a displeasing ambiguity. But so often the ambiguity is all the facts really afford--and one must live in the moment of uncertainty.

I know some people who can only live as if all their beliefs derive directly from data; but to my mind, this way is inadequate, as approximation is required to function in so many ways. But I'm very interested in just how much my own worldview depends on extrapolation from limited data. Sometimes, experiment shows my extrapolations should be improved. But over time, I learn to gauge my extrapolations, and figure out which are useful in seeking the truth.

I love that old hymn about how one is "standing on the promises of God", as if a code has been laid down from which all the rules of life are defined. But as important as promises are upon which to stand, perhaps compassion calls for more than reliance on promises in books. Surely whatever grace we seek is more than a series of promises upon which to stand.

But it's a dilemma for me, this approximation business. On the one hand, almost every beneficial human connection I have ever made, I made because I was able to infer the common connections and pleasing diversities I see. On the other hand, whenever one moves beyond the raw data at hand, the potential for error is tremendous. In LiveJournal this is both liberating and frustrating. Does one take a journal at face value, or does one try to seek out some meanings beneath the journal? When is a novel not a novel? To borrow from the old painting, "this is a weblog about a picture of a cigar".

I suppose the solution is just to proceed forward cautiously,
judging little, and inferring less. But my own instinct is just the opposite--read all, dream all, infer all, enjoy all. But maybe the key is "type less". For it in really in typing, rather than in reading, that the risk arises. But who, after all, suggested that the way to communicate is to avoid risk?

I got my mail art chess set mailed off to Belgium today. I also mailed out the next wave of chess poem books, which almost completes the requested group. I ordered Sparks' new album, Lil Beethoven, which has gotten such amazing reviews. I certainly hope it shows the Maels returning to the form of the first four albums. We all need a little spark these days. I also picked up a CD of Kimono My House, because I don't think I have it in CD.

The weather today was neither Spring nor Winter, but some pleasing ambiguity between the two. I must fend for myself for dinner tonight so I'll pick up barbecue and think about the danger and necessity of inference, and the inadequacy of all data about anything.