My paternal grandfather passed away on Sep 27th. He was 98. For those of you who knew him, you know he was a total boss to the end.
I gave a speech at his funeral. And I think it’s worth putting up. So here it is:
About a year ago I was having lunch with Papou – we always had one-on-one lunches whenever I was in town. I had just moved to New York from San Francisco. It was my third new city in as many years.
After we ordered and the waiter left, Papou looked at me in that way he had of looking at people. I mean the look with the barely raised eyebrow, the slight smile, as if he knew something you didn’t.
I could tell something was coming, but I enjoyed playing along with his games, so I let him go on staring at me. Eventually, he looked down at his water, took a sip, then looked back up at me and said:
“Did you know that the life span of a house fly is only one day?”
I told him that I did not know that.
He said, “Do you know why it’s so short?” I said I didn’t know that, either.
He said, “The fly spends his whole life in motion, constantly jumping from one random surface to the next. The fly thinks he’s been so many places. But he hasn’t even left my bedroom, let alone been downstairs.”
How do you respond to that? I am going to greatly miss those lunches.
Throughout the last two or three decades of his life, Papou kept large three-ring binders full of quotes, mostly pithy one-liners, which were alphabetically arranged by category.
The wide range of authors he cites reveals, more than anything, my grandfather’s endless curiosity, his passion for knowledge, his infinitely varying interests. For example, there are quotes from Bill Clinton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jesse Jackson, Socrates, Nietzsche, Cervantes, John Berger, Picasso. Quotes from presidents, judges, cultural icons, philosophers, novelists, painters.
Sometimes, however, Papou added his own creations into the mix, attributing them to BAT for Basil Anargyros Thomas. That made me laugh, so proper, so sincere, without a hint of irony.
As someone who spends most of his waking life either in books or thinking of them, I was immediately drawn to the category “READING” in one of his more recent binders. It was there that I found the following quotation:
“Nothing can be said against reading – one of the greatest pleasures in life. You may find yourself lonely, deserted by the world, despondent, but in books you will find companions, consolation, adventure, and instruction. For reading will educate you, entertain you, broaden your mind and save you from boredom. Yes, there are other pleasures in life, but none that can be looked upon, in retrospect, with equal pleasure.” – BAT
I have heard much talk since his death – in the newspaper obituaries and press releases, and simply in passing conversations – about Judge Basil Thomas, the sober man of business, the dapper gentleman always with his tie in an immaculate Full Windosor, the ex-Circuit Court judge, the prudent lawyer who sat on the board of a major public company until he was 98 years old.
Surely, these descriptions are true and very admirable. But I guess as his grandson they sound a bit foreign, a bit removed from my experience of the man. Something about his humanness, something about his passion – as my sister said, his “enthusiasm” – towards life is lost in the mere recitation of his resume.
But in his above quote on reading, more than in his list of accomplishments, do I sense the Papou I knew, the complicated man I loved. Notice how books are not only meant to “educate” and “to broaden the mind.” There is something else going on, equally as important, but less utilitarian. Books are also meant to “entertain,” “to save you” – not from failure, or ignorance, or sin, or even death – but “to save you from boredom.”
It’s the last thing that strikes me as especially profound and paradoxical, as quintessentially Papou. If you knew Basil Thomas, at the very least you know he was never a bored man, but always engaged with the world around him. However, it appears, this wasn’t something that came naturally. No, it was a skill that he had acquired and honed.
His “enthusiasm” for life was not innate, but a constant struggle to maintain. And if his life was a success – and the many people in this room seem to testify that it was – it was his remarkable skill at maintaining for nearly a century / a constant enthusiasm towards any and every endeavor, no matter how much pain or failure had already been thrown his way.
What a great thought, Papou! More than anything, it is from boredom that we all need to be saved.
But, despite all this pleasure he derived from reading, Papou was not a writer. Rather, his art was that of speechmaking. And he was very talented at it. And also very dedicated.
Last week while scavenging his apartment, on one of the bookshelves, surreptitiously stored behind his three-ring binders of quotes, I found a little treasure: An instructional booklet and scattered loose leaf paper, which was scrawled over with Papou’s signature smooshed-up cursive. These hidden papers were practice exercises for composing and delivering an effective speech.
On these exercises were written: Different variations of an opening line, long slashes in between two words in different places of identical sentences, searching for the best place to take a breath, to ensure that the stress falls on the punch-line. Practice pitches and boilerplates, notes about voice technique.
I hear everyone who knew him say, “Basil loved playing the Master of Ceremonies.” Or “Basil gave the best toasts and speeches.” Well, now we know why he was so good. He worked sedulously at perfecting his art.
No only did he practice composing speeches in his spare time – and this in his 90’s! – but also, every time he came across a quote or a tidbit of information that he thought might one day serve him, he wrote it down in his binder, annotated it so that it would always be on call if he should ever be in need.
Not Basil the judge, or Basil the lawyer, or Basil the officer in the Counter Intelligence Corps. But Basil the actor.
“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare famously wrote. If Papou is any indication, Shakespeare was right.
Just think how many times we have heard it said, or have said ourselves, “Basil is an extraordinary human being, to stay so active at his age, to go to work everyday at 98.”
He was extraordinary, but not solely because he possessed hearty genes, but because he constantly fooled us, constantly made us believe that it was easy for him to drop a seemingly impromptu nugget of wisdom on our laps – no, it wasn’t impromptu, he had been practicing for such a moment, you just happened to provide him with the opportunity.
Or, he constantly made us believe that it was easy for him to get up everyday and continue to go to work – it wasn’t easy. His body ached with all the natural ailments of old age. But he did not let us see him suffer.
And that was his skill. He was such a convincing actor that I think he occasionally convinced himself.
Last week, during his final days, as he lay in a hospital bed, clearly agonized by the fact that his brain continued to function as lucidly as ever, but that he didn’t have enough strength or remaining breath to vocalize the thoughts which continued to race about his head, Papou repeated to me several times that he had very recently experienced a type of revelation. Each time, he told me, “Reincarnation exists.” He seemed very convinced of this fact.
And, like Shakespeare, maybe Papou was right. Maybe he did not pass on to some unknown next life in a more perfect world. But maybe as his body finally failed him, his energetic mind and spirit were reborn to a new body.
That’s what I am going to choose to believe, at least. It seems fitting. For Papou was too curious, too energetic, too voracious. Simply put, one lifetime, even 98 years of it, even two world wars, the rise and fall of communism, two marriages of over 30 years, about seven different careers, and eight grandchildren – even all of this was not enough satiate his hunger.
So I hope he was right about reincarnation, for his sake. He had too much “enthusiasm” to be used up in a single lifetime. Even after 98 years, he didn’t want to leave this world. There was too much going on. It was too exciting. He didn’t even wish for one or two more years, but wanted to start from the beginning and experience it all over again.
Open an oaken door,
explore the failure of before
to exist in your life, anymore.
Find, too late,
some small bright thing
you’d stored against time
So dispensable, what is no more,
so unforgettable regrettable days.
Recollection’s a glacial lake,
but surfaces forsake what’s under.
She was part of you, your lover,
but painfully part of others the same.
In due time blue flame became cold coals.
She changed to a plain frame
having been its portrait in gold.
Her melancholic music rolled his days.
She foretold futures fingering singing bowls,
colorful, made of clay.
The palace’s darknesses swallowed things whole,
its confusions afloat & visible
as dust in sunny rooms.
Find, inside, hallways vague with direction
& forked as a drawerful of fates,
formless, reckless, unrandom.
The palace of memory was built by hands
& images. Its towers the self-
same color as the skies.
Find, by chance,
a powerful notion – each mind
an ocean, with depths not made for human eyes.
Such were the time’s final frontiers -
the sea, the sky, & the space
between the ears.
Harder & odder to fathom time,
its sly diminishings, high speeds,
the way & the fact it slides & recedes.
Find it most beautiful softened, generalized,
put at ease, abstracted
to a fog, to moss & vines,
willfully lost in a jungle of mind.
After all, after a time, all human shadows
spilled the same across the fern floor. More
important, she learned at last,
after twenty-five years alive,
was to savor the violence
of summer solstice suns
igniting some jungle’s
canopy, even one she’ll never see.
This is me, she’d come to think,
my surreal, cerulean memories.
B/c of bad service, had to type tweets into Notes, could not Tweet in earnest.
These are them, verbatim [w/ notes in brackets where needed]:
724 pm Live tweeing tao lin rdg at booksmith hashtaolin
732So nervous for some reason, wonder if Tao this nervous
733 wore old chucks to appear hip to tao and others at reading
734 womder where tao is and if on drugs. F that oregonian reporter [jeff becker] at portland reading last night. Idiot
Less nervos now that dont hace to live tweet b/c no service. Seems weird bc still will post these [forgot timestamp, sometimes]
If i give tradings of my own i woll always b ~18 min late on purp [tradings=readings i think]
738 people keep turning neckcraning like hes coming hes not coming
Many cute gorls here and guys and funky 738 gurls
739 Also old peeps whch is cool
739 TL just walled in, bug headgones roud neck, felt like i knew him when saw him [favorite typo of all: bug headgones. A good scifi fic character name or s/t]
741 Few days go talked to a ~indian dude at montgomery muni station ab taipei – dudes here, i think
741 taos “backstage”
743 My foccus keeps returning to chalk drawinf of a plate and spoon holdibg “hands” and running aboove nackstage door [see pic below]
743 Keep thinking, a la Tao says, there is no good or bad in art
744 thought: lin makes membrane as permeable as possible b/t the page and life as consciousness experiences it
745 wondet what theyre doing backstage
755 TL & JN just entered stage area all so quiet now
758 tao being funny with microphone smiling
8 tao hates mocrophone, puts it down
8 first real Q re dots. Tao says dots indestructible, unhurtable, unsplittable, [thought this bad first Q]
802 Jesse nathan is looking dramatically up in a way thtseems parodic of thoughtfulness
804 tao just talked ab dots in a way that does not do the dot thing in book justice
805 ~7/~50 people just raised hand when JN asked whos read book
809 Tao just said “synthetic construction of oneness” re seasons; things feel abstract
810 tao really likes terrence mckennas ideas, esp. History as culture being recorded- being pulled toward a singulaott [i think that = singularity? Dont know]
814 tao just said. I dont think drugs had big part in book. ha
821 KN just said characters fear boredom more than death
823 tao jut tried o move on from boredom topic and JN like shot him down weirdly saying i dont want to move on from boredom. JN seems to be being contrarian
827 people r leaving
828 gorl just asked aggressive seeming Q re neg criticism and said words “why doenst tao lin go die”
830 tao said new york magg crit was hilarious
833 awk / antagonisyic joke from crowd man said were u BORED of the microphone? After tao said he didny no what bored meant
836 dude asked good Q about love
836 tao: ‘gravity = like a perfect relationship’
841 I asked Q re memry cuz tao said he wanted to talk ab memory
843 tao said no working definition of consciousness ( hes said this about regret in past and about boredom ten min ago)
852 girl wearing website shirt asked confusing Q re body v brain and irony
855 I asked another Q, re bookworm interview and tao answered sayng he still does it but didnt really go into it [it = thing where, when writing, he allows his brain to operate w/o any preconceptions of the world, in order to experience life directly, he said he still did that and basically just tries to think about things differently]
857 good Q re physicality, bleakness, reality, saying maybe bleakness is from lack of physicality today, internet taking over the physical?, to wich tao said: ‘sorry to say this but that is completely wrong’
858 tao said ‘cant stress enough’ about this point
9 tao said interested in depression when it comes w/o concrete reasons- larger bleakness not western, technological, generational,etc, only human
902 tao said he identifies w Kafka and other depressed people who did not have internet
903 tao said another thing he had no definition for: success
904 tao said heroin not most pleasurable thing hed ever felt, but sex, sex or eating, while high on pot, was [girl asked bold seeming Q to end the night that was just: was heroin the best thing youve ever felt in your life?]
First of all, I hate when people say Happy Monday. Moving on. This is the final part in my much-anticipated trilogy (Here is Part 1, and here is Part 2). The Internet and its history are cool, but I miss literature. For my next post I’m going to write a strange experimental book review of something super arty like Taipei, I think.
In the 1980’s, MacArthur Grant fellow and MIT computer scientist Richard Stallman, along with many other university computer scientists, did the majority of his computing on an open operating system (OS) named Unix. Unix had been developed by Bell Labs in the 1960’s. It was “open” in the sense that anybody could see its source code and in the sense that it was free for anyone to use. Since it was free to use and its source code was available, that early generation of computer scientists could modify and add-on to it at whim. This naturally produced an environment conducive to growth and academic collaboration.
But in 1984 when AT&T was famously split due to antitrust laws, the company was free to make its Unix operating system a proprietary product. Unix became closed. The source code was sealed-off and universities and individuals had to pay to use it, much like the Windows operating system today.
Stallman, like many of his colleagues, felt undermined and betrayed. At this point in its still early history, Computer Science had always been a close-knit academic community used to easy and constant collaboration. To maintain this community many relied upon an open OS like Unix. In an ambitiously rebellious move Stallman started the GNU project. GNU is a discursive acronym that stands for “GNU is not Unix.” The GNU project’s goal was to build from the ground up a Unix-like OS that was completely free, both in the sense that it was free to use and that its source code was visible. Building an OS, however, is no easy feat. Fast-forward to 1991, and all the groundwork had been laid, yet the only thing the GNU project lacked was a kernel. A kernel is essentially, in Lawrence Lessig’s words, “the heart of an OS.”
Enter Linus Torvalds, an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki at the time. Torvalds wrote a very primitive kernel for the GNU project and posted it online. What happened next became the stuff of legend. Engineers from all over the world responded to Torvalds’ post immediately. The original kernel, as noted above, was very primitive, and it needed lots of work. Engineers would add to the kernel and send their additions back to Torvalds. Torvalds would make the changes he thought were best and re-post the updated kernel, and engineers would respond again. This back-and-forth went on for several years. The unbelievable fact of the phenomenon is that nobody received or expected to receive payment for their work, Torvalds included. This truly occurred outside the capitalist marketplace, and by 1996 a robust OS had been created. The OS is now referred to as Linux (a mash-up of Linus and Unix); or, more historically accurate, it is called GNU/Linux. This is often cited as the first major proof that “crowd-sourcing” – or, to use Harvard Law professor and digital activist Yochai Benkler’s term, “peer-production” – works better than anyone could have imagined.
The original document describing the Linux phenomenon was Eric Raymond’s article turned book The Cathedral & The Bazaar. It has since become The Bible of Open Source. Open Source means two things, already briefly referred to above. 1) The Source Code must be open so future engineers can see how the software functions; 2) The redistribution of the product must be free. Re-distribution is an important distinction here because the original distribution can be for a price. For example, the company Red Hat is the largest distributor of Open Source software such as GNU/Linux, and they are successful and large enough that they have become an extremely successful public company. However, anyone hacking the source code and modifying the software must re-distribute that hack for free. (N.B. the term “hack” here is not used in the pejorative sense, which connotes illegal activity. Rather, it simply means to modify a line of existing code.)
In The Cathedral & The Bazaar, Raymond gives an insider’s account of why the Linux project worked so well. While doing so he offers a set of maxims or guidelines that are meant to demonstrate why and how an Open Source piece of software can be effectively crowd-sourced. The most important maxim, which has proliferated in tech-related articles on the Web and elsewhere, is: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” This is now known as “Linus’s Law.” What he means by this is that when thousands of engineers are slugging away through a buggy piece of software, even the most covert buggy line of code will surface rather quickly. The more people who are de-bugging, the faster the bug will present itself, and so the faster a fix will be written.
Raymond uses the “all bugs are shallow” maxim to distinguish between the cathedral and the bazaar. Raymond writes, “In the cathedral-builder view of programming, bugs and development problems are tricky, insidious deep-phenomena.” By “cathedral-builder,” he means a top-down hierarchy, where there is a lead writer who calls all the shots. The lead writer surrounds herself by lackeys, essentially, who do her bidding. This is in contrast to the “bazaar view.” Raymond writes, “In the bazaar view…you assume that bugs…turn shallow pretty quickly when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers pounding on every single new release.” The bazaar refers to the decentralized, individually motivated phenomenon of peer-production.
Also, just in case you didn’t see, check out this awesome Times’ article by one of my favorite tech writers Jaron Lanier.
This is a continuation from my last post, if you’re interested, in which I explained the TCP/IP stuff mentioned below; however, it’s not necessary to read that one to understand this one.
The general idea is that to understand the Internet that we Generation 2.0-ers cherish so much, we need to understand a bit of its history. Not to mention, it’s all pretty fascinating. I imagine those early Internet pioneers as our generation’s founding fathers. It must have been mightily exciting to be there at the beginning when all these grounbreaking discoveries were being made. They probably felt like Wildlings standing on top of the wall, viewing the realm for the first time (RIP Robb Stark). In my mind the earliest hackers are the same as Columbus sailing west or Thomas Jefferson penning the Declaration of Independence. This is the stuff of our country’s mythology. Reading about it makes me tingle with excitement. Maybe I’m just a nerd. O well. Onward!
The World Wide Web is not the Internet. It is a set of protocols placed on top of the TCP/IP protocols of the original Internet. Less important here is the technical details, but we need a quick history to move forward.
In the late 1980’s Tim Berners-Lee was a researcher at a particle physics lab called CERN. Berners-Lee wanted to make it so that any document or file on one computer at CERN labs could link to any other document or file. Before Berners-Lee’s protocols, the computers couldn’t really interact with each other. If there was a document on one computer, it couldn’t be accessed from a different computer in the lab. Berners-Lee wanted it so that any researcher on any computer in the CERN network could easily access and edit any document created on a different computer. He created two protocols HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) and HTML (hypertext markup language) to make this a reality.
Berners-Lee realized soon after his creation of the two protocols that the ramifications extended beyond particle physics labs. If everyone adopted the protocols, then every single web page or file or whatever on the Internet could be linked to any other web page, file, whatever. And thus, the World Wide Web was born.
However, arguably the most important thing Berners-Lee did besides creating the protocols was subsequently giving up their rights to the public domain. Because HTML and HTTP were free for anyone to use, they caught on almost instantly. Indeed, it has grown into the robust Web 2.0 that we know today.
I must reiterate two facts: 1) The HTML and HTTP protocols allowed any web page to link to any other. All information was equally disseminated by design on the World Wide Web, as opposed to a hierarchical structure such as a menu page, which could allow users to access any page from a central hub. (N.B. Previous designs similar to Berners-Lee’s had such menu pages.) And 2) Berners-Lee’s creation was so wildly successful because he placed the rights in the public domain, allowing any engineer or young programmer to come along and play with them and add-on or modify them as if they were a sandbox.
Notice how both the protocols and the fact that they were made public were radically decentralizing. Just like the end-to-end argument discussed in the previous post. Again, the Internet was not built like a sky-scraper from the ground up with a central, path-defining foundation. It was built outward, inviting innovation. It was free to use and easy to modify by anyone with the inclination to learn how to speak its language.