Sunday, December 4, 2011

Essay by a Witness to Signs on the Quad

Essay by Will

People in Seattle are boring -- I'm convinced.  When looking for reasons to think otherwise, I feel like the survivor of a zombie apocalypse.  Surrounded by drones hooked to iPods, life itself is on life-support.  If there's a future here, it's defined with nine to five drudgery.  Wife and two kids.  SUV and mortgage loans.  Picket fence and suburb of sterility. Cleanliness.  Complacency.  These are the babies pulled kicking and screaming from the womb only to spend their entire lives seeking to replace the lost comfort.  The unconsciousness. 
The only acceptable excitement seems to come from a glass bottle two days a week.  On other days, it's the TV.

Then I hear something strange.  Someone doing something different.  A weird guy standing under a tree with a sign bearing cryptic messages.  At first I think it's a joke.  Maybe an advertisement or corporate stunt in a society where creativity is either exclusive to profit or illegal.  Regardless, I'm curious.

I decide to talk to this guy.  Turns out he has a name, Kevin Smith -- known by only a handful of people.  What's he selling?  Nothing.  What's he doing here?  Turns out he's more interested in why I'M here.  Not something I'm used to.  Instead of blabbing about himself like a 2D TV personality, he's breaking the third wall.  He's interested, and there's depth here.
"Do you live in Seattle?  I ask.
"No.  Russia."

So he doesn't live here, still, what makes him do this?  He's been standing under the same tree at the University Of Washington for two and a half months with a different sign almost everyday.  And it's cold.  

Today the sign says, "There is no time.  Yesterday is still here… Tomorrow is already."  I shiver as I read it, and I eavesdrop on Kevin's conversation with another guy -- a college student.  
"I'm interested in what words of wisdom you have."  The student says.
"I don't think there's anything I could say that hasn't been said before." Kevin responds.  "As they say, there's nothing new under the sun."

After the guy leaves I ask Kevin, "So what made you want to do this?"  He tells me he's in between jobs so he's visiting Seattle.  He used to go to school at the University Of Washington, and he's got family in the area.  He says, "I was only here three days until I got so bored, I had to do something.  So I started this."
I ask why he was bored.  It seems he's got a few reasons, but mainly it's the people.
"Are people different in Russia?"
"Oh yes.  And it's not hard to start conversations with anyone."

I'd never been to Russia, but knew he was probably right.  I think back to my own travels in far-off places.  Specifically, San Blas, Mexico.  There was this plaza I'd sit in where people hung out like prime-time TV didn't exist.  Children played soccer, women crafted together, teen guys walked by with keys hanging from their pockets like they owned a car.  San Blas is only fifteen blocks wide, but the giggling girls seemed to fall for it…

I snap out of it and look at the quad Kevin and I are standing in -- bleak in comparison.  People walk through like the quad is an obstacle to get past.  It's such a contrast to my memory of Mexico.  When there, I felt I could talk to anyone despite the language barrier.  Here, we all speak English, but no one's talking. 
Kevin looks at his watch and says, "This rush'll last another ten minutes."  The few people looking our way either seem offended, or too frightened to approach us.

A few days later Kevin has a more controversial sign.  "Beat Women".  And in small print underneath: "calling on men to outdo (beat) women in cultivating the beauty and the wisdom of the eternal feminine".  Basically a pro-women sign, but it would take a closer look to realize that.  A guy walks up and takes the time to read the sign, but doesn't get it.  He seems angry.  "Why would you show a sign like this?"  He asks.
Kevin replies, "Well, I'll tell you.  But first I'd like to hear what it means to you."
"What does 'Beat Women' mean to me?  Why would you show that?"
"I'm interested in hearing your thoughts."
"Yeah?  Well you have a nice day."
The man storms off.  

Although Kevin tells me most interactions with students are positive, only a small percentage of people actually talk to him.  This makes me curious how many people don't want him here, so I get the idea to start a joke petition.  I'll collect signatures in favor of banning Kevin from campus, then we'll do the math.  But after thinking more about it, we shoot it down.  It would be too pushy and biased.  I decide a better idea is to simply walk up and ask people what they think.  The responses:

"Beat Women?  Yeah, he must be a real Gentleman…  I wouldn't talk to him."
-Girl 1

"He seems creepy.  I don't want to talk to him.  He probably has a God Complex."
-Girl 2   

"I never noticed him before.  I usually just keep my head down when I walk through here."
-Girl 3

I get the impression that fear is literally choking the life out these people.  Why anyone would be too afraid to speak with anyone in broad daylight while surrounded by crowds of people is beyond me.  It's easier to dismiss the man as creepy and keep walking.  And sure, Kevin is only a small possibility for social interaction -- they could have good a reason not to talk to him -- but there's a dangerous mindset here.  If every assumed opinion must be agreeable in order to have a conversation with a stranger, how will people challenge themselves?  When they walk through life dismissively with their heads down, what will they learn?  

Not finding these responses surprising, I walk back and tell Kevin the results.  He's not surprised either.  But truthfully, during his three months of this experiment, I've only known about it for the last few weeks.  I'm just seeing a slice of the bigger picture, so I can't say how many thought provoking conversations have been sparked by these signs.      

What I can say though, is he might be on to something.  What I saw those last few weeks was a good example.  One we could all follow.  One that says we should speak with integrity -- say what we mean instead of resorting to gossip.

We need to stop taking things personally.  Nothing others do is because of us.  It is a projection of their own reality, not ours. When we're immune to the opinions and actions of others, we cease to be their victims.

Finally, Kevin's experiment reminded me of something even I forget at times:  we should stop making assumptions.  We need to find the courage to ask questions and express what we want.  Communication kills misunderstanding and drama.

So I take back what I said Seattle.  If you live here, you're not boring.  I just wish you'd stop acting like it.

A Response to the Essay by another witness to Signs on the Quad...

Will, this is a very interesting and well-written narrative. I can't say I fully agree with your point that "fear is literally choking the life out of these people," though. The fact is, as interested as people may be to start a conversation with Kevin, I'm going to guess that a vast majority of students walking through the Quad are heading to their next class. If it's a fear they harbor, it's not a fear of Kevin being dangerous, but a fear of not being able to live up to societal expectations. Missing lecture results in a lower GPA, which can result in later financial instability or lack of a degree, which can lead to lack of a girlfriend, family, grandchildren, and all the other things we're taught to desire. So why sacrifice 10 minutes of lecture, which amounts to actual dollars, to better my mind and have a real intellectual conversation?

I also noticed that you interviewed three girls. Why not ask a guy? Women are particularly vulnerable, and have been taught to be wary of creepy men in black jackets doing strange things. If Kevin was an attractive model, do you think more women would approach him? Hell yes they would. Fear is not "literally choking the life out of these people," but choking the opportunity for all females to develop their intellect. A girl can have as happy a life as humanly possible without ever taking a chance to have a conversation with a creepy stranger (no offense, Kevin).

Asking people to stop acting boring is akin to asking people to stop conforming. Any time and any place, in Mexico, in Russia, Seattle, whatever, people do what other people do. It's a fact human nature. Just because the people here are consumed with petty concerns, is it really reasonable to ask them to sacrifice their innate desire to belong to the community they live in for the sake of developing a more idealistic and vibrant one? Who could possibly pioneer a change in this society? Kevin? You? Me? It would take something beyond a thousand essays on societal criticism, and a thousand thought-provoking, controversial signs, to change the way people think and behave. Until that change happens, your work and Kevin's speaks to developing the minds of those who have not yet fully been consumed by "the bore."


Here is Will’s response:

To answer some of your questions:  I interviewed three girls because we already knew the guys' thoughts on Kevin's experiment. If you're interested in seeing those, Kevin has tons of RAW conversations written down on this blog.  Very few of those share a female perspective.  I tried to get more of that.  Sorry, I didn't make that more clear in my essay.

Also, I think you've got a bad perspective.  Kevin might be odd, but that doesn't make him creepy.  Despite what the news says, women are NOT vulnerable in a well populated area in broad daylight.  But for this argument, let's say Kevin really was looking to hurt someone. In that case, women would be LESS vulnerable than men.  If Kevin attacked me, no one would help. Actually, it might even attract a crowd to enjoy the spectacle. So what would happen if a woman got attacked?  Do you think people would stand and watch?  No, Kevin would most likely be severely beaten by several chivalrous males.

Now, I'm not saying this would be the same in, say... an empty parking garage.  But if Kevin WAS in an empty parking garage, would it matter if he looked like an "attractive model"?

Sure, some people might just be going to class.  Nothing wrong with that.  But to think you "can have as happy a life as humanly possible without ever taking a chance" to have a conversation with a stranger, or push yourself in any way, will definitely lead to a boring uninteresting life of sweatpants and watching movies on the couch.  Insisting on maintaining a victim mentality will make it worse.

Your question:  Is it reasonable to ask people to sacrifice their innate desire to belong to the community they live in for the sake of developing a more idealistic and vibrant one?

My answer:  A community supports its members.  In our existing community, what happens when you lose your job, your house, or your health?  What happens if you don't have insurance?  How do we treat our elderly, our veterans, or our poor?  These are the uncomfortable questions we don't like to think about.  And its because of the answers to those questions, I find it hard to even call this a community at all. Community is something we have to create and maintain.  We have to look out for each other.  We have to communicate with each other. And we have to be aware of what's going on around us. Problem is, that's not happening.

So who could possibly pioneer a change like that?  All of us.  I wouldn't expect anyone to solve world hunger and poverty.

I'm just saying one thing:

Live like you give a damn.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Signs on the Quad welcomes to the U District...ZBox

The name Will is already well-known to readers of this site. In addition to writing an essay
for this blog, on a reddit post he asked for creative ideas on what to do with a mannequin. You can contribute your ideas here.

Recently he's been promoting another project run by a mysterious group designed to save from loneliness and alienation people trapped like flies in the world wide web and return them to the real world of live human interaction. Read about this new “public creative outlet” here.

For whatever it’s worth, ZBox has been awarded the official Signs on the Quad seal of approval (whatever that is).

Here are more photos:
ZBox guidelines
The inside of ZBox
Another, earlier, view of the inside of ZBox

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Important Announcement and a Request

On April 29th in Meany Theater there will be a PostSecret event. It's already sold out, so if you haven't bought tickets you cannot attend.

Allow me to suggest the following idea. If I were there (I'm out of the country) I would stand out under the tree on the Quad during the days leading up to the event, and then outside the theater on the evening of the event while people were going in and leaving, with a sign reading:



I would then stand with a sign telling one of my own secrets and encourage others to make their own signs and stand out with them. If people are not yet ready for the kind of brutal honesty it would take to own up non-anonymously to their darkest secrets, a group of people could get together and each illustrate their own secret and exchange them among themselves, so that each would stand out with a secret "belonging" to someone else.

Many comments on the PostSecret site are from people saying they had the same secret as someone who sent in a postcard and seeing it made them feel less alone. Many others said revealing a secret to someone--a relative, significant other or total stranger--was like having an enormous weight lifted off their shoulders. If this is true, why should we be ashamed of our own secrets? Having the courage to--literally--stand out by your secret would announce to the world that we are not judging anyone for what they themselves might be ashamed of.

Imagine the impact of dozens or perhaps hundreds of people coming together with signs. The University of Washington PostSecret event would be the first of its kind and, if emulated by others, would mean that UW is setting the pace for the rest of the country; ahead of the curve in open, honest discourse.

Since I am out of the country and cannot participate, I would appreciate it greatly if someone agreed to represent me with a sign reading:

- Kevin Smith"

Thank you and good luck!

P.S. Here is a postcard of the UW Quad posted on the PostSecret site:

P.P.S. Here is feedback from one of my Quad "regulars" and my response:

"it's hard for people to be honest... that's what makes post secret such a powerful tool, it's both public and private. There's a huge difference between standing there with your secrets out and sending in a letter. Courage is a hard thing to have.. I can see what this would try to do, but I can't help but feel that the people who needed to do it wouldn't."

I agree with what you have to say, and I wasn't necessarily implying that YOU should do it. But what if the people who are open enough not to NEED it themselves took up the slack for those who DO need it by making signs themselves to embolden those reluctant to do so? Might that not be of benefit to people?

Thursday, March 31, 2011


The sign today was:


...which resulted in a complaint by someone to the police, a conversation with the police, and my writing on the back of the sign and putting up:


...which attracted fewer people than I would have anticipated (are students so fearful? are they completely uncurious?). The sign did, however, attract curiosity seekers of different species:

This first sign was up for exactly one hour before I decided to take it down. I did so because two university police officers informed me that if there were someone standing on the Quad near my sign who then said to them that they felt their life was directly threatened by the content of my sign, they would have to take me to jail. (See the complete transcript of my conversation with them below). News of the sign was posted on facebook within two hours of putting the sign up.

Reactions to the messages:

- some agreed that there is value in contemplating one’s mortality

- one guy said he found some of my signs inspiring, but this one he found unpleasant

- two guys walked by, saw the sign, laughed, and said “Cool”

- one guy suspected I made up that the police were called to attract attention to the sign

- one guy suspected nothing was written on the back of the sign

- one girl said, “The police were upset with that sign? It’s just a fact; a philosophical statement.”

- one elderly man said I should have left the first sign up to make a stand for free speech

To those who wanted to see the reverse side of the sign I would first ask: "Do you feel threatened by me?" or "Do you promise not to call the police on me?" or "Okay, are you ready to see some hardcore child porn?" This last question seemed to offend some people.

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 31.

Here is the full transcript of the conversation with the police:

11:53 I see two police officers come out of Miller Hall

11:59-12:31 officers R. F. and A. E. come up to me
- hello - is this your sign? - yes - is this your bag? - yes - could you please take your hands out of your pockets - [i take my hands out of my pockets, and with them my cell phone] - can you show some identification? - i'd rather not - [pause] - do you insist? - [the senior officer indicates wordlessly that he does] - okay; may i record this conversation? - no, you may not - may i take notes? - yes, you may - [i take out my notepad and pen and take down the officers' names and badge numbers and record the time and topic of our conversation; i hand my passport to the senior police officer] you are campus police…- no we’re university police – i’m sorry - do you have any Washington state ID? - no, i do not - are you a resident in Washington state? - yes, i am - you don't have a driver's license? - i don't drive - do you have any other form of identification? - no, i have no credit cards or anything else; i used to have a Washington state driver's license but i let it lapse about 20 years ago - [they give information over their police radios about my passport] - we're here because someone called us saying there was a man dressed all in black threatening that they were going to die - my sign is simply stating a fact - it can be understood to mean you are threatening someone - i have stood here for the past three months with 20 different signs; people know me and that i am not threatening – what kinds of signs did you have? – “DON’T THINK”, “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU” [I deliberately leave out mentioning yesterday’s "BEAT WOMEN” sign]; when I had the sign “THIS SIGN WILL NOT BE SHOWN ON TV”, two university police officers came up to ask me what the sign meant; it was a woman and a black man – we know who they are – they said they’d come on to the Quad because someone was filming something; is filming on the Quad not allowed? [I get no answer to this question]; i keep a blog about the signs that is read on every continent in the world except Antarctica - can we see your blog? - yes - [the quieter officer takes down the address] - please take a look at it - i will - the problem is people can perceive the sign as a direct threat; if there were someone standing right here telling me they felt there was a personal threat to their safety, i would have to take you to jail - but the meaning of the sign is the following: it is a statement of biological fact and is at the same time a philosophical statement; i believe contemplating one's own mortality is extremely important for personal development and becoming happy; in addition, many of the enlightened masters from the Buddhist school began their path to enlightenment with a contemplation of their own mortality - [this seems to be at little over their head of the officer i’m speaking with] - if someone told me they felt there was a direct threat to their safety, in this day and age, i would have to take you to jail - but my intention is not to threaten anyone - that does not matter - then you are saying that the interpretation of what i say is what takes precedence, not what i intend to say - yes, i am [* see Postscript below]- this seems to be a slippery slope: if 400 years ago in Salem i said i saw a star in the sky in the middle of the day i would have been burned at the stake as a witch because that's what i would have been perceived to be - if someone feels there is a direct threat to them, i have to respond - but for there to be a crime, there must be mens rea; you must establish criminal intent on the part of the person being charged with a crime - today when you have people who come on to college campuses and shoot people we have to be especially careful – but you had the man shoot people on the University of Texas campus in the 70s – actually that was in the 50s; the man was taken down by police together with assistance from citizens – yes, i read about that; i guess i should take down my sign if you say you can take me to jail - that's probably a good idea; i'm not telling you to do that; this is a public campus; but if someone perceives the sign as a threat i will have to take action - [at 12:04 i turn the sign around so that it is not visible] can i add a clarification to the sign so that people know it is not a threat? - that would definitely help to let people know you're not threatening them - what if i write something like: "I was informed by campus police that this could be perceived as being a threat and that in order to ensure it is not so perceived I should add this disclaimer to the sign"? - i don't know how you would fit that on a sign - did you receive a call from someone about the sign? - yes, we did; we received a call stating that there was a man dressed all in black threatening them that they were going to die; again, we are not telling you to take the sign down, but if you were to stand out here for another five hours with the sign, my guess is that we would get about five more calls - i don't want to waste your time... - it's not wasting our time; it's our job - can i see the statute that relates to what i'm doing - [they produce a piece of paper] - may i have this - no - may i read it aloud and record it on my phone? - yes, you may - [i sit down on the bench and do so] - please don't think i'm being a smart aleck, but what if i were to call you and complain about myself? - you can't call in a complaint about yourself - i mean i would do it anonymously; i wouldn't say who i was - no, if someone makes a formal complaint we take down their name and number - what about this? if i put a disclaimer on the sign explaining that my intention is not to threaten but to generate a philosophical discussion about mortality, but someone doesn't come up close enough to read it and reads only the "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE" part, can you still take me to jail? - if someone is at the far end of the campus looking at the sign through binoculars and sees the sign, i would argue they could not perceive it as a direct threat...[at this point i decide against asking about a hypothetical situation in which i may have planted a bomb on the campus] all cases for there to be a crime there must be a victim, except in the case of a drug-related crime in which case the society is considered to be the victim - what about suicide? - suicide is classified as a crime - i mean, in the case of a suicide who is the victim? - do you mean after the person kills themselves? - i mean who would be classified as the victim under the law? would he be his own victim? - if someone is standing out here with a knife held to his throat threatening to hurt himself, i will do everything possible to get that person medical treatment - could you tackle him - yes, i would do what i could to get him help - could you, say, shoot him in the leg? - if he was threatening our safety or [with emphasis] your safety, i could use force; it's my job to protect people - if you were a really good shot, could you shoot him in the hand so that he dropped the knife? - again, i'm here to get that person the help they need - can i ask how many university police officers there are? - there are 47 of us, from the chief all the way down to recruits...

12:20 Will comes up, dressed all in black as usual
- [the police address Will] are you connected with this sign? - no, i just came up to look... - so, again, we're not telling you to take down the sign; but if we get a complaint we'll have to come out here again - ok - goodbye - goodbye

12:31 the police leave


With respect to the interpretation of perceivers of forms of expression trumping the intention of the author of that expression...

In 2008 some male students at Colorado College composed and distributed anonymously a flyer they called “The Monthly Bag” that parodied a flyer from the feminist and gender studies program called “The Monthly Rag.” The parody flyer included references to: "tough guy wisdom," "chainsaw etiquette," the range of a sniper rifle, and a quotation about "female violence and abuse" of men from the website The college subjected the authors of the parody flyer to an hours-long hearing and disciplinary letters were placed in their official files. [you can read about the incident here].

In a letter to one of the students responsible for the parody flyer, the Vice President for Student Life/Dean of Students of Colorado College wrote:

”I recognize that your intent in posting the publication was not to threaten but to parody. But in the climate in which we find ourselves today, violence—or implied violence—of any kind cannot be tolerated on a college campus. I believe the issue here is not whether or not you intended to threaten anyone. The fact is that your publication was received as a threat by members of the Colorado College community. The content of “The Monthly Bag,” in particular the juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality, combined with the fact that is was distributed anonymously, led it to be received as a threat. As a liberal arts college, we pride ourselves on the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of education, and we support freedom of speech. However, as a private institution, we cannot support forms of speech that disrupt our community to the point of causing members of it to feel threatened or afraid.”

The full text of the letter is here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Message on sign:


March 30, 2011
Within five minutes of the sign going up, two UW campus police officers rode by on bicycles and read the sign. 
- no woman expressed offense to me, though I saw what appeared to be angry looks on the faces of more than a few

- one girl who was not offended thanks to having read the fine print said that, maybe sadly, a sign reading "BEAT MEN" would not be as offensive as "BEAT WOMEN", but a sign "BEAT CHILDREN" would be even more offensive

- one girl came up and told me her boyfriend asked her to tell me he loves my blog; she then dictated the text of today's sign to him over the phone

- one woman said it was prima facie absurd to think that someone would compose a blatant call to beat women, put it on a sign and stand next to it

- one guy called the sign offensive 

- one guy said that he "got" the sign but that it was a horrible word choice

- one guy did not understand if the sign was supposed to be funny; he did not understand the play on words of the text 
- one guy said it is ironic that women would be offended by the sign since it is in fact calling on men to become more like them

- two guys posed by the sign giving the thumbs up sign while their girlfriends took pictures of them

- one girl thought the sign was a call for people to be more "feminist". Do people today not know the difference between feminism and femininity?

Will had the idea of going out onto the Quad with a clipboard and collecting signatures on a petition to have me and my signs removed from campus. We decided that would prejudice judgment on the sign and contradict one of the purposes of the messages on the sign, so we decided Will would survey passersby on their opinions about the sign. One girl's sarcastic comment was: "Well, that's a gentleman." Another girl said: "He must have a God complex." Another girl said she walked through the Quad two or three times a day and had never seen me or my signs before because she always looks down.


Here is a demotivator with the text: "I LOVE BEATING WOMEN...TO THE DOOR SO I CAN HOLD IT OPEN FOR THEM."
Other signs on the Quad: about 20 signs of the American Cancer Society were up with different messages on each side, e.g. "Parents who smoke can be role models by quitting."

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 30.


Message on sign:

[in mirror image]

March 29 - March 30, 2011

Opinions expressed:

- the sign is a work of art

- the sign is an aesthetic, ironic, introspective call to reflect on one's thoughts. Because the letters are written in Husky colors, the thoughts you should reflect on are those learned at the university. Because the letters are written in mirror image, everything you learned at the university you have backwards.

- you should come up to the man standing by the sign and express a thought to him, after which he will give you a counter-argument to what you've said, as if your thoughts are related back to you in reverse.

- wherever you may be, your perception of that place and the experiences you have there will be colored by what your own thoughts about it are

- maybe people walking by will think: "How can that guy know my thoughts well enough for them to be reflected there?"

- one girl took the time to come up and let me know my sign was backwards

The "original" idea:

Language is not "owned" by any one person alone. All speakers of that language change the meanings of the words and other composite elements of that language. It is therefore impossible to compose a phrase which would be completely unambiguous. Whatever meaning I might intend the message on a sign to have, the meaning the perceiver infers will depend on his or her own thoughts about the subject of the sign.

Other signs on the Quad: about 20 signs of the American Cancer Society were up with different messages on each side, e.g. "Parents who smoke can be role models by quitting."; for the first two hours two men handed out flyers and held a sign reading: "Invisible Children Help Silent War Tonight 7:00 Kane 120 TONY [advertising a film about children abducted in West Africa and forced to fight in wars]"; from 1:15-2:00 the Lyndon Larouche people stood by a table with their literature and signs reading: "END BRITISH OCCUPATION DUMP OBAMA" and "IS CALIFORNIA NEXT? [referring to earthquakes]"

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 29-30.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Message on sign:
March 28, 2011

Opinions expressed:

- one man angrily and loudly asserted while walking by: "YOU are not free. Who are you to tell me I'm not free? I'm free. I'm FREE!"

- "The sign is true. Society sets all sorts of rules it expects us to follow. I want to be free and do what I want all the time."

- "We are not free because we are raised to have certain perceptions of the world which color what we see and dictate how we behave. Most people are not capable of thinking for themselves. They are not free."

- "The sign is true and not true. I can go to class if I want, but I have to do what my parents tell me to do."

- "Yes, we're not free. We're all being tracked all the time. We all have to pay taxes..."

- "We are freer politically than people in many other countries but maybe less free than we used to be. But we have free will, so we are free."

- "I've been reading the book 'What the Buddha Taught' and it says we have no free will. How can we have free will when everything is relative, bound by the before and the after?"

- "I don't understand why people would agree to give up their freedoms to the state? They don't even know they are doing it. They do so with the best of intentions and under the banner of doing good for others, but they don't realize they're giving their freedoms away."

- "Goethe said: 'None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.' It's ironic that if people knew they weren't free, that knowledge would free them."

- one guy walking by said: "Not yet..."

Surprisingly, no one interpreted the sign to mean that no one is free in the sense that each person has some monetary value or worth, or that anyone can be bought, but only at a price.

Other signs on the Quad: about 20 signs of the American Cancer Society were up on the Quad with different messages on either side, e.g. "Parents who smoke can be role models by quitting." Near the George Washington statue there were people with signs reading: "STOP CRUELTY TO ANIMALS".

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 28.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Message on sign:
March 14 and 17, 2011
This week was final exam week, so traffic on the Quad was very light. Many of those who spoke with me were Christians (members of the group Navigators) from other universities spreading the gospel and doing good works during their spring break. Therefore many discussions touched on the theological implications of the sign.

Answers to the question, "What does the sign mean?":

- there isn't much time left because final exams are soon

- time is merely a figment of our imagination

- given the increasing incidence of phenomena such as birds falling from the skies dead in droves, earthquakes, financial crises, revolutions, etc., we seem to be entering a time of rapid and dramatic change

- it is a reference to something spiritual, specifically the idea that the end--the Apocalypse--is near, hence the phrase "tomorrow is already [here]". But what then would "yesterday is still here" refer to? 

- it is a reference to something spiritual, specifically the idea that there is a God who is an extra-temporal entity. Thus in the Bible we read "I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end." From God's point of view, all of time exists simultaneously ("already").

- it's important to be completely in the moment, to free oneself from the constraints of memory of the past and planning for the future in order to step outside of the confines of time itself

- there is unfinished business we have left over from the past; and the seeds of future events are being sown now, in the present

- "yesterday is still here" means that the memory we have of what has happened preserves the past, and thus it is still with us in that form

- it means "seize the day"; tomorrow could bring us death, and the past should not keep us from experiencing the present moment fully

- one guy was reminded of the George Carlin quote: "There's no present. There's only the immediate future and the recent past."

Theological and theoretical discussions:

- How do we reconcile the idea that God granted us free will with the notion that God is omniscient? If He--from His position outside of time--knows everything that will happen, is not then everything in our lives predestined? There is a solution to this paradox which would find support from some physicists and in the esoteric literature. If it is true that each time we weigh several alternative courses of action, a portion of ourselves creates an alternate, parallel universe (not unimaginable if one accepts the notion of the infinite nature of God and His creation), everything that could possibly happen already has happened. Where our free will comes in is in our ability and opportunity to choose, from among the infinite possibilities that have occurred, that one which we desire to experience.

- Time is not what we have traditionally thought it to be. There is evidence that it is not an absolute, objective, external phenomenon, but its apparent duration can be altered by our subjective perception if we free ourselves from the societally inculcated habit of retroactively bringing our memory of lived events into conformity with clock time. For example, the passage of time seems interminably slow when a man is waiting for his girlfriend to arrive, and then regrettably seems to pass all too rapidly when he is with her.

- There exists the theory that all moments of time--past, present and future--exist "simultaneously" in some way we cannot yet fathom.

Other signs on the Quad: on March 14 a single-engined plane flew above the campus for about ten minutes in the afternoon trailing a banner that read: "SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC"

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 14-17.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Shameful graffiti seen in restroom on UW campus

Below I have documented--with remorse and shame--what I was forced to see while a captive of biological necessity in a stall in a men's restroom on the campus of the University of Washington.


- two drawings of penises urinating (or ejaculating--hard to make out clearly) next to one of which was written: "UDICK" [a clumsy pun on "U-DUB"?]

- a drawing of a guy smoking a joint

- the word "México" inside a "forbidden" sign



"The world sucks"

"USA" [written--apparently by a real patriot--in big letters with stars in them]

"They get the dollar,
I get the dime,
That's why I shit,
On my company's time."

"Smoke weed all day everyday!"

"But do you need to pay tuition?" [with an arrow drawn to the previous message]

"Do a barrel roll"

"Wilco is a very, very good band"

"Neggers" [or: "Naggers" (disgracefully illegible)]

"Oh my god, my shit is fat,
When I said hi,
It said hey right back."

Below I have recorded a chain of graffiti messages that refer one to the other in sequence, but which were arranged visually in a way I cannot recreate using only a text editor.

1. "Weed makes me NOT poop"

2. "therefore potheads
in addition to being grafittists are also
full of shit" [with an arrow drawn to #1]

3. "Hypocritical" [with an arrow drawn to #2]

4. "Coffee makes me poop
Tobacco makes me poop"

5. "on a related note,
drinking coffee makes
my pee smell like
coffee" [with an arrow drawn to #4, specifically the sentence: "Coffee makes me poop"]

6. "This is very true. Actually the reason
why I'm pooping right now." [with an arrow drawn to #4, specifically the word "tobacco"]

7. "FACT" [with an arrow drawn to #4, specifically the word "tobacco"]

8. "(also) pretentious" [with an arrow coming from #7 and drawn to #2]

9. "Smoke salvia"

Numbers 7 through 9 were collectively referenced by an inclusive circle cum arrow to #2.

But by far the most egregious--and freshest--message was:

"Attention grafittists!
You are quoted here:"


Sometime between March 14 and April 1, the graffiti described here was erased, leaving only this now invaluable record for future historians and sociologists...

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Message on sign:


March 2 - March 3, 2011

Credits: adapted from an idea created by Vitaly Ivanov

The weather was terrible these two days so few people came up to talk.

Ideas expressed:

- the difference between you and me is: all of reality. Perception of the world is entirely subjective and your world is therefore completely different from mine. However, if you asked me to answer the opposite question--how are we alike-- my answer would be: "less than you might think." What people want most out of life varies very little even across cultures, races, nations and other divisions.

- one guy spoke of how different his life was before he established a personal relationship with Jesus Christ a year ago

- how do I know you exist and are not dreamed by me; or that I exist and am not being dreamed by you?

Ways mentioned that people can be different:
- bearing
- demeanor 
- age
- experience
- height

Other signs on the Quad: there was a rally near the state of George Washington when I arrived. People held up signs: "UW to UW Wisconsin Solidarity", "Freedom of Assembly"; there was a giant inflatable "fat cat" with a diamond ring on its pinky choking a construction worker. For coverage of the rally go here.

The fat cat choking the construction worker looked like this:

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, March 2-3.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Message on sign:


FEBRUARY 28 - MARCH 1, 2011

Other signs on the Quad: "Please Give Blood"; a man handed out flyers: "Judgment Day! May 21, 2011/The End of the World October 21, 2011/Does GOD Love You?"; a woman stood on the Quad collecting signatures for a petition to expand Mt. Rainier National Park

Credits: the idea for this sign grew out of discussions with Vitaly Ivanov

Some ideas discussed and thoughts expressed:

- many people smiled when they saw the sign; some shook their heads "No", apparently in response to the question

- some people said the internet does know more than they do. They said they go to sites like wikipedia to get information they need to write papers

- some said they wouldn't want computers to know (or seem to know) more than we do as then we would rely on them too much; for example, a computer might be programmed to catch criminals before they commit crimes (like in the film Minority Report) but make mistakes we would overlook and send innocent people to jail; overreliance on computers could also make us even lazier about learning than we already are; for example, with so much information at our fingertips it becomes too easy to learn

- one person said his answer to the question would depend on whether the "internet" was understood as the connective devices between people or the people themselves contributing to it

- one person said the internet could theoretically know as much as a human being could if we constructed a mechanical model which replicated all the neurological connections in the brain

- one person said the internet knows more than he does, but the individual person who answers his question on Yahoo Answers maybe knows less

- some said the answer to the question would depend on what was meant by "know"; he said the internet could store a lot of information like a library, but that it could not make use of it because it did not have the necessary will, desire or intention 

- most people said the internet does not know more than they do; even if it could contain more information, it could not put its knowledge together with experience to acquire what human beings possess, namely wisdom

- one person made the point that a computer could not know love since love is an emotion impossible to describe; but then again, if a computer did acquire sentience and came to know love, it might be equally (as we are) unable to describe the feeling so we could not know whether the computer had truly learned to experience it

- one person made the point that it is possible to have knowledge about something, or even to be able to do something, like solve a mathematical equation, but that does not necessarily mean that a person understands what they are doing; so there is knowledge and there is Knowledge...

- in any case, the issue is an important one. If computers acquire the ability to take on the tasks carried out by, say, lawyers and doctors, why do we overemphasize rote learning, erudition and the more mechanical intellectual tasks to the detriment of developing the the imagination, creative abilities, the intuition and the ability to apply ethical principles?

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, February 28-March 1.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Special for Russian speakers...

A kindred spirit is Mr. Freeman.


In 2013 Viktor pelevin published a novel called Batman Apollo in which the main character walks down the streets of Moscow wearing a T-shirt that says: "OCCUPY PUSSY" — a reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the performance by the activist group Pussy Riot in the Church of Christ Our Savior in Moscow.

In the book the main character describes the reaction to the message on his T-shirt:

"Я знал, что люди реагируют не на мое действительное высказывание — оно вряд ли было доступно их суетливым умам, — а на свои собственные проекции, которые они только и способны узнавать во внешнем мире. Они хлопают лишь себе. Им не нужен никто другой. Они даже не знают, что другое бывает."


"I knew that people react not to my actual statement — it's hardly possible it registered with their busy minds, — but to their own projections which they can only recognize in the outer world. They applaud only themselves. They don't need anyone else. They don't even know that anything else exists."

This was one of the intended meanings of the sign: YOUR THOUGHTS REFLECTED HERE.

This blogger's signs outdone in meta-cleverness

Spotted here: a photo of a telephone pole with the words: "Have you seen this pole" posted on a telephone pole; and underneath it a picture of the pole with the photo with the words: "Have you seen this sign?"

Friday, February 25, 2011


Message on sign:


February 24, 2011

Reactions and discussions:

- most said the sign was not anti-semitic

- one Jewish guy who appeared to be very high on something said the sign could be considered anti-semitic because the white background of the letters was whiter than the complexion of semites; he said the sign should be more "ethnic-colored" not to be considered anti-semitic.

- one Jewish guy who did not find the sign anti-semitic asked what the purpose of the sign was. I suggested that, because Jews are sometimes said to see anti-semitic attacks in the most innocuous of statements, the sign presented them with a golden opportunity to prove the accusations of paranoia wrong by ignoring it.

- one bisexual Jewish woman said the sign itself was not anti-semitic but that it was disturbing, in a way she said she couldn't explain, that a non-Jew had made the sign. She said, in relation to my "I AM NOT GAY" sign, that it would be disturbing in the same hard-to-explain way if a non-gay person were to make a sign saying "I AM GAY" because only the people directly affected by such issues should speak out in such a way.

- one guy who meditates and is interested in yoga and Buddhism said he did not consider the sign anti-semitic. He said someone who did would probably be placing too much weight on the self.

- one guy asked whether an equally valid sign might be: "IS THIS SIGN RACIST?" or "IS THIS SIGN ANTI-BLACK?", perhaps written with white letters on a black background

- one guy burst out laughing when he saw the sign

- one guy asked if the sign was a statement. I told him no, it was a question.

- two guys walking by stopped when they saw the sign. They conferred with each other and then one took out a camera and surreptitiously took a picture of the sign while pretending to be photographing other things on the Quad. I didn't let on that I noticed.

- one guy suggested coming back the next day with a sign saying: "THIS SIGN IS NOT ANTI-SEMITIC" with the letters "S" stylized to look like Nazi SS letters. The idea would be to help people to see that the signifier is not the signified, that a symbol need not in and of itself carry any intrinsic meaning.

For a discussion of this sign on, see here.


On March 24th I submitted the question: "IS THIS QUESTION ANTI-SEMITIC?" for inclusion in an exhibition called "Are We There Yet?" which celebrates "5000 years of answering questions with questions" to be held at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, March 31-July 31, 2011. You can propose your own question here.

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, February 24.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Message on sign:

February 22 - February 23, 2011

- some people came up to ask what the sign meant because they did not understand the historical reference

- some interpreted the sign to mean that we should feel ourselves fortunate that we do not have to remain silent whereas in Hitler's Germany universities had no choice

- a woman passing by clapped four times and smiled at me; one guy gave me the thumbs up while walking by

- a guy passing by read the sign aloud mockingly in a faux grave tone of voice

- a guy walking by said to his friends: "Wait, this guy's the most silent..." (I assume referring to the fact that I do not address anyone who does not first address me)

- one guy said: "You of course know that there's a law on the internet that says that as soon as Hitler or the Nazis are brought up in any discussion, that's the end of rational discourse."

- one guy said: "Hey, man. I'm not quite sure what you're doing, bro. But keep doing it."

Discussions of the Hitler era vs. today:

- "The US is not Hitler's Germany because there's no Holocaust going on."
"That's what one assumes and hopes is true, but the world--and the vast majority of Germans themselves--did not learn of the Holocaust until after the end of the war."

- "Any of the groups in the US that are fascist are at the fringes and thus pose no real threat."
"The Nazi party was also on the fringes of politics. Hitler came to power without his party ever winning a majority in any election."

- "In Nazi Germany people's freedoms were taken away; here we have our civil rights."
"Among the rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights is the right to be secure in one's person, house, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and this right has been abrogated by the Patriot Act; your house can now be searched without a warrant, without consent and without the knowledge of the person whose house is searched. People in the US charged with 'terrorism', including US citizens, have been placed into military prisons, have not been allowed access to family or representation of an attorney and can be held incommunicado as long as the government deems it necessary."

- "In Hitler's Germany people at universities had no choice but to remain silent because otherwise they would have been killed or arrested."
"Before Hitler was appointed Chancellor and before he had had time to install himself dictator of a police state, academics and students at universities failed to speak out in any significant numbers against the injustices and extremist rhetoric of the Nazi party."

- "Why did professors and academics at German universities remain silent?"
"Perhaps they as professional educators felt it should be the students themselves who should make such judgments and they therefore wanted to remain neutral."
"Perhaps they liked the status quo."
"Maybe they were afraid."

- "Why do students on campus today not engage in more activism? The most activism I've seen is people standing with signs advertising 'The Vagina Monologues' next to groups of visiting school children."
"Hitler correctly understood that to take over a country you first have to control the students. Here the media tells us that each of us is a beautifully unique snowflake and that if we each work hard we'll all become millionaires, which is not borne out by statistics. But it keeps us divided and incapable of coming together."

- "If they raise tuition in Europe thousands of students come out in protest. Here you get a measly 200 to go to Olympia or a pathetic bunch of 100 on Red Square, half of whom are student government members themselves."
"Maybe students don't come together here because they are so diverse ethnically and religiously, but then again in Europe you have a very diverse group of students too."

In a curious bit of synchronicity, the LaRouche people on the first day had a table set up in front of the University Book Store with their literature and with posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache drawn on:

For a complete transcript of discussions with people about this sign (or at least as complete as memory would allow), see here, February 22-23.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Signs Seen in Baltimore and Other Sign Ideas

There are reports of random signs being posted in Baltimore. They are here:

Recent homemade signs on telephone poles in my town:

"Smiling is not cost-effective."
"To create profit you must create problems."
"Statistically speaking, the person you are with is either a terrorist or has an STD."
"This could have been the best day of your life." [This idea made an impression on this person.]
"Trust no one...[...]...we know what's best for you."
"Is this all there is for you?"

It's one guy with a printer, and no explanation given. Been going on for a couple of months now.

Later posters on the same page list signs they thought might be interesting:

"I was bored so i made a sign"
"This is a sign"
"Here's your sign"
"This is my hobby"
"This is a statement, can you guess what it is?"


"Could you be doing something more worthwhile?"
"Be where you are."
"Did you forget something?"


"Money is a loaded subject"
"Just another lone wolf"


"What are you looking at?"


"The World Ended Two Days Ago. --Don't Ask."

And a student at UW came up with ideas for signs she wants to stand out on the Quad with herself...

"You are good enough"
"We all have secrets"