Sunday, January 30, 2011

Something About Nothing

From Nothing: A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close.

"Our immediate experiences are of bulk matter and our senses are blind to the existence of atoms, but clues to the restless agitation of the atomic architecture are all around. As I watch my plants grow I don't see the carbon and oxygen atoms pulled from the air and transformed into the leaves; my breakfast cereal mysteriously turns into me because the molecules are being rearranged. In all cases the atoms are calling the tune and we lumbering macro-beings see only the large end-products...

"Many physical systems do not show the fundamental symmetries of the forces that build them. Electromagnetic forces don't care about left or right, yet biological molecules have mirror images that are inert or even fatal while their originals are food or beneficial.

"Balance a perfectly engineered, cylindrically shaped pencil on its point. Turn around: it looks the same. This invariance when one rotates is known as a symmetry, in this case rotational symmetry. Balanced on its tip the pencil is metastable as the force of gravity will pull it to ground if it is displaced from the vertical by the slightest amount. The gravitational force is rotationally symmetric, which implies that when the pencil falls to the ground, no particular direction is preferred over another. Do the experiment thousands of times and the collection will show the pencils have fallen to all points on the compass, in accord with the rotational symmetry. However, on any individual experiment you cannot tell in which direction the pencil will fall; having fallen, perhaps to the north, the 'ground state' will have broken the rotational symmetry. Roulette is another example. Play long enough and all the numbers will win with equal likelihood; this guarantees that the house wins as the zero is theirs. But on any individual play, it is your inability to predict with certainty where the ball will fall that is the source of the gamble.

"In the example of the pencil, the state in which the symmetry is broken is more stable than the symmetric state in which the pencil was precariously balanced on its tip. In general, the laws that govern a system have some symmetry but if there is a more stable state that spoils it, the symmetry is 'spontaneously broken', or 'hidden'. So it is with a snowflake and water, or with magnetism of iron.

"You may cry foul at this point arguing that this is not really a failure of symmetry, but more a result of one's imprecision in balancing the pencil: 'The pencil dropped because it was not perfectly upright.' This is true, but suppose that it has been balanced on a perfectly engineered point. Even then, the atoms in the tip are in random motion, due to the heat manifested in their kinetic energy. This randomness means that the direction of toppling is random. You might agree, but suggest that we do the experiment at temperatures approaching absolute zero of temperature, -273º C, where the kinetic energy tends to vanish. Your gedankenexperiment supposes the tip to be engineered from perfectly spherical molecules, the pivotal one being frozen in place at absolute zero temperature where thermal motion has ceased. The catch is that the quantum laws take over. If motion has vanished, then position is unknown and the point of balance is itself randomized. If the point were precisely known at some instant, motion would be undetermined and the resulting imbalance unpredictable. It seems that here, and in general, the quantum fabric of nature enables high-energy metastability to choose a state of lower energy where the symmetry is spontaneously broken. Thus melting ice, or heating magnetized metal, causes the symmetry to return, but when allowed to cool again, the symmetry is broken with no memory of what happened before. The rule is that raising the temperature causes structure and complexity to melt away, giving a 'simpler' system. Water is bland; ice crystals are beautiful.

"The universe today is cold; the various forces and patterns of matter are structures frozen into the fabric of the vacuum. We are far from the extreme heat in the aftermath of the Big Bang, but if we were to heat everything up, the patterns and structures would disappear. Atoms and the patterns of Mendeleev's table have meaning only at temperatures below about 100,000º; above this temperature atoms are ionized into a plasma of electrons and nuclear particles as in the Sun. At even hotter temperatures, the patterns enshrined in the Standard Model of particles and forces, where the electron is in a family of leptons, with families of quarks and disparate forces, do not survive the heat ... the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force that controls beta-radioactivity melt into a symmetric sameness. Theories that describe matter and forces as we see them in the cold imply that all these structures will melt away in the heat. According to theory, the pattern of particles and forces that we are governed by may be randomly frozen, accidental remnants of symmetry breaking when the universe 'froze' at a temperature of about 10^17 degrees. We are like the pencil that landed pointing north, or the roulette wheel where the ball landed in the slot that enabled life to arise. Had the ball landed elsewhere, such that the mass of the electron were greater, or the weak force weaker, then we would have been losers in the lottery and life would not have occurred."

"Here I have come full circle back to my starting conundrum. If the spontaneous symmetry breaking had made other parameters and forces, we would not have been here to know it. This has given rise to the radical idea that there may be many vacua, multiplicities of universes, of which ours is the one where by chance the dials were set just right."

"An example here is of magnetized metal: heat it, destroying the magnetism, and cool it again. In one part the atomic magnets become frozen together pointing in one direction, while in another part of the metal they lock in another direction. This phenomenon is known as 'magnetic domain'. Could this be a model of the universe? Theorists have built mathematical models of the Big Bang, which have to agree with what we know and exhibit the 'true' symmetry in the early hot epoch. A general feature seems to be that such models imply that when cooling occurs from the initial symmetric state, there is a 'landscape' of possible solutions. When you view the entire landscape, you see on the average the original symmetry: like the orientations of the fallen pencil at all points of the compass, there are all possible masses and forces that are consistent with the original symmetry. What is true hereabouts, and in the billions of light years accessible to us, might be different elsewhere."


This can lead us to conclude that we experience the universe's current state simply because we exist. We see what we see because these are the only conditions that allow it. The possibilities held in every moment are reduced to a singularity by our presence. This is natural selection on the quantum level. We are birthed from the random: endless possibilities have come and gone in the wake of our presence, leaving only one experience of reality that is entirely observer-dependent. Randomness rules every aspect of our lives, but ultimately, only one result prevails that is dependent on our mode of perception. In light of relativity, every observer lives their own personal version of the universe with their own perception of time: our own place in a vibratory, multidimensional mandala. Though some of our experiences can overlap in symmetry, we find that we are God playing dice, the Brahman playing hide-and-seek with itself, creating uniqueness in every moment, now ad infinitum. We find polarities unified: chaos and order, difference and similarity, organism and environment, unity and separateness, something and nothing, as sides of the same coin. They create each other and depend on each other. All arises together, in and of itself.

Friday, January 7, 2011

In Motion

Where to begin? I say we can't begin, we can only move. I find this to be most apparent when we embrace our true nature: motion. In this instance, in travel. Going somewhere. Many of us choose to stay still, but in truth we are never at rest. Even when we think we are, or feel we are, we can't help but move through at least one dimension. In reality it is this motion that defines us: as the undefinable. When we travel, this is when we have the chance to embrace this truth of ourselves most intimately. Often a moment can never last long enough before it's gone, especially our most cherished ones, yet others seem to drag on forever: time stretches, melts and warps according to our mode of perception. If space is curved, then so is time. No matter how far we travel, we'll never get back to where we once were, we'll only get to where we are.

Lately I try to take the most pleasure I can in everything. Whether it's an assembly of friends over dinner and drinks, or getting stuck in rush hour traffic on the way back home, gazing down the endless stream of red and white lights under the sunset, or taking ten minutes to do donuts in an empty parking lot over freshly fallen snow, I take a moment to appreciate that it will never be quite the same as it is right now. So it's important to take pause and appreciate these situations, whichever form they may take. Whether it's talking with my Dad over dinner about a passing relative, recognizing how significant a life they lived, for better or worse, or seeing the distance between my parents grow with each day, and finally, truly taking to heart the fact that yeah, they're not meant for each other anymore, it's time for them to go down their own paths now, and that's okay. It's time to sell the house that my brother and I were raised in for our entire lives, and it's time for me to become more independent than I already am.

Whether it's the typical indifferent look on the train conductor's bearded face as he says "train to Boston" in his characteristic Boston accent, or a trained violinist playing classical music just for its own sake in the middle of the downtown subway, we should appreciate these things. You can't just expect things to stick around, because they won't, not forever. Whether it's having coffee and cookies with my aging grandfather, or petting my thirteen-year-old, fragile-boned cat, these existences are equally significant in that they will one day come to pass, as will I. It makes me grateful that I made the effort to spend time with my friend Josh (DJ Skunk), who last year passed away unexpectedly, because now those moments are the only ones we'll ever have, and all we can do now is be glad that we were there to have them, and to be thankful for the enormous, yet unrecognized influence he had on the growth of underground dance music in New England.

In truth, we never know what lies around the corner for us, for better or worse. Change comes often, and unexpectedly. If we don't do what we want to do now, we'll never be able to do it in quite the same way, ever again. There may be other chances, but why not now? If you truly feel it, do it. This is how I've made my decisions for as long as I can remember. Granted, maybe it doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me. I think if your intentions are really pure, then there's no reason not to follow this method. It's what has made me who I am today, and who I am becoming. Whether it was saying to myself years ago, you know, I'm in college in Boston, and the world is too big for me to just stay here for the whole time. I liked British culture, so I went to London as a Goldsmiths College visiting student for three months in 2006. Right before I was due to depart, Josh played me some new records he had picked up: among them Loefah, Skream, Tempa, DMZ. I ask him, what is this? Dubstep. Oh, wow. That BASS!!!... So once I arrive in London, I'm hungry for more, and I pick up Dubstep Allstars Volume 4: Youngsta and Hatcha. Reading the liner notes, I realize, wow, this is happening RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. My friend Giuliana (who had just graduated from the our music industry program at Northeastern) takes me to FWD>>, and then to DMZ. Wow. That BASS!!! Here, smoke this......WOW... I'll never forget those moments.

Fast forward six months and I'm back in Boston, having reverse culture shock. The seeds of the city's own dubstep scene are just beginning to grow out of its drum & bass and UKG contingents, via the able hands of promoters Damian Silva, C Dubs, and recent Maui transplant Pandai'a. It will soon become Bassic, the city's most successful dubstep event to date... Meanwhile I am desperately trying to get myself back to London. Going through the limited collection of dubstep records I had brought home, I find the email addresses of every label I like: among them Random Trio, Chestplate, Dub Police, Tempa, Hyperdub, DMZ, Hotflush, and ask them if they are interested in having me work for them, for free, for six months, as I'm able to on Northeastern's international work experience program. After receiving a sparse response, I decide I need to go there in person and see what I can dig up. The perfect opportunity arises: my spring break and DMZ's two year anniversary party coincide, so in March 2007, I fly over for a visit.

That week, in an internet cafe, I get an e-mail reply from Paul Rose, aka Scuba, he runs a label called Hotflush, asking me if I can meet him at so and so pub at so and so time. He needs someone to help with publicity, promotion and general organization, so this turns into my internship. Meanwhile, I catch word on Dubstepforum that a handful of dubstep DJs from outside London are in town on Thursday, the night before DMZ, and were supposed to play at Redstar, a local night run by Letty Fox, but their venue shuts down at the last minute and they have nowhere to play. Naturally, I think immediately of Goldsmiths College Student Union, so I go to their office and speak to the music director, Wil Fincher. It just so happens they had an event fall out for Thursday, and he likes dubstep, so let's get these guys in and book a headliner. FWD>> is also that night, but fuck it. The line up is Loefah, Matty G and Nick Argon from San Francisco, Tes La Rok and Tommi Clouds from Helsinki, and Moldy from New England, with Emcee Child, a UK-born San Francisco transplant. The attendance of the night is surprisingly big, especially for being so last minute and the same night as FWD>>. I run into Kode 9 in the crowd, among others I can't remember now.

Fast forward again and I fly back over to London in June 2007 to start my internship, working out of a tower block flat in Bethnal Green, East London. The six months that follow is a whirlwind of activity: late nights, bass bins, dubplates, spliff smoke, going into a "deep medi", new faces becoming familiar ones, pirate-style Sub.FM radio shows from my room, Boomnoise, Sgt. Pokes, DJ Scientist, Skipple, Stanton, Ed Contakt, Jennifer, Rogue Star, Grand, D-Man, Braiden, Deapoh, Roko, Subeena, Ikonika, Ben UFO, Ramadanman, Markle, Farrah, Melissa Bradshaw, Rekordah, Heny G, Quest, Silkie, Oneman, Asbo, Loefah, Crazy D, Appleblim, Blackmarket Records, Georgie Cook's Drumz of the South night at Plan B in Brixton, Letty Fox's Platform 1 at Corsica Studios, Bert and Kid Cazual's Streamizm show in Brighton... all playing a part in one way or another.

It's over before I know it. Feeling like I could live forever in that world, in that time, I've only just begun to scratch the surface, things are continuing to develop further, but I have leave it all to go home to Boston and finish my degree.

Returning back to Boston is hard at first, but I start to get used to it. Bassic is beginning to become popular in the city, situated in a very Plastic People-like basement of Good Life downtown, and awareness of dubstep is growing thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned Josh Skunk, rest in peace you crazy mofo, Damian, C Dubs, Pandai'a, Scotch1, Dabu, G Notorious, Jam-2, DJ Flack, and Wayne and Wax. I soon become increasingly close with Josephine (Pandai'a), and our shared love for long hours of spinning records at home or on Sub.FM, often with Skunk, not to mention Jack Daniels and spliffs, eventually leads to Dave Q of the legendary Dub War night in New York City asking Josephine and I to play an opening set in April 2008, since its resident DJ, Joe Nice, is out of town. Also on the line up is Caspa, Matty G, Dave Q, and MC Juakali. This is one month before my graduation from Northeastern.

After my graduation, a summer of indecision, or slacking, leads to me decide that I need to go back to London. My plan is to go there with another six month student visa, get certified for teaching English as a second language, and work as a teacher while continuing to DJ. In order to get the certification that is most accepted in the UK, called CELTA, I have to take a one month course that just so happens to take place in New York City. So I sublet an apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, via a friend of Dan Goscombe, a fellow Goldsmiths traveler. While in New York, in one way or another, Dave Q tells me that if I was to stick around, I'm welcome to become involved with Dub War, as well as a new event idea we were brewing up: the NYC branch of Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder parties. This didn't end up happening, but I stayed anyway, because I felt that New York was about as close as I could get to London on this side of the pond. Maybe I was ready for New York, and maybe it was ready for me.

Fast forward two years or so, following my continued residency at Dub War and many other significant personal experiences that I won't get into, I'm still here in my current residence of Astoria, Queens, New York City, at present day, January 2011, standing at what I feel to be the threshold of a transitional period in many ways. Dubstep, what was born as a niche genre centered around a post-2000, post-UK Garage South London, is becoming a but a wave in the tide of a greater global movement that we are beginning to call "bass music". Dub War, after launching its first party in 2005 (a few months after the first DMZ event in Brixton), has taken an undetermined hiatus following the 5 Year Birthday party, chiefly due to the loss of a suitable home at Club Love in the East Village. From its founder Dave Q, a new night called Twisup will make its debut in the basement of Deity Underground in downtown Brooklyn on January 14th. More personally, as the parental foundation I was raised on for twenty-something years begins to change shape, but not strength, I meanwhile grow closer to Josephine, and we embark on a new phase through life in this new year. Though we may not always be close in space, we will always be close in spirit.

So where does this leave me? Over the last few years, though I have not found much in the way of what most modern Americans might call "success", that is, in the monetary sense, I have found something far more important: the ability to do what I love. Since returning from London, my musical interests have progressively changed from "what sounds are being made out there that I can get my hands on?" to "what sounds ARE NOT being made out there that I can CREATE?". Success, in this sense, began to take shape in the form of tunes like "Patter", the best tune I made in 2009, and that I played on BBC Radio 1 as my portion of Dub War's guest mix on Mary Anne Hobbs' Experimental show. More recently, "Axis", the best tune I made in 2010, was also played on Mary Anne Hobbs' show, by her own selection, and later was chosen by Paul Rose to be released on Hotflush Recordings in Spring 2011, as part of a full-length compilation entitled BACK AND 4TH, alongside an array of other producers of what is now called "bass music".

This finally brings me to where I am, here, now. On a bus from Boston to New York, to attend the 8th anniversary party of a foundational techno night called The Bunker, featuring Donato Dozzy and Optimo. I'm going here tonight because it's my last opportunity to experience the magic of a truly amazingly organized night of electronic music, with an attendance of a bunch of truly amazing people who really just love to get together, enjoy good music and dance. The last opportunity, that is, before I embark on my next journey, at noon on Sunday January 10th. First it will take me to Dallas, Texas, where I will meet Josephine, and spend a few days in her hometown, before we fly to Seattle, Washington to spend the weekend with a friend. From there we will connect through Portland, Oregon, and then on to our final destination of Maui, Hawaii.

We will spend three months on the island of Maui, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, living at the Kahua Institute, a special tract of land that is off the grid, self-sustained, green, organically farmed, and owned by a married couple of spiritual teachers named Kutira and Raphael, who are also musicians. This will be my first contact with anyone that I would call "spiritual", whatever that means. My intention is to learn from them what I can, musically or otherwise, as well as meditate, read, write, sleep, dream, work, and generally just live it up to the fullest in paradise, alongside my best friend and love.

So that's where I'm at. Who knows where I began, and who knows where I'll end, but as we say, the point is not in reaching where you're going, but how you get there. It's the journey: it's in the motion.