October 19th, 2014

Last night I went to a beautiful concert that consisted mainly of sacred chants. The event was very much participatory — the audience was encouraged to join in.

It was one of those deeply emotional experiences where you feel transported out of yourself. By the time we got to the closing number, with everybody in the audience standing up, linking hands and swaying slowly from side to side while we lost ourselves in the music, the experience was completely heavenly.

And yet part of me resisted. Even though I knew that these were kind folk, who believed in peace and gentleness of people toward each other, a corner of my mind held back.

And that’s because on some level I just don’t trust the transcendent experience of losing oneself in a group, even when I believe in the underlying cause that brought everyone together. There is always a part of my mind that wants to stay awake, so that I can make sure that I have not lost my judgement.

I had something like this experience at the end of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008. Don’t get me wrong — I was very happy that he won the election. Yet at the end of his speech, when he led everyone in a chant, I felt myself pulling away.

The mental state of being lost in a group transcendent experience might be one of the most pleasurable of human emotions. Yet when we are in this state, when we give ourselves over completely to the group identity, we are unable to ask hard questions about what it is, exactly, that we are saying.

Maybe I am just being too cautious in my resistance to enchantment. But then, there is something to be said for erring on the side of caution.

Tone mapping

October 18th, 2014

This blog tends to mostly sunny, with some light showers and the occasional storm cloud. Other blogs, such as one of my favorites by my friend Michael Wahrman, are much darker and more sardonic, with refreshingly dyspeptic views of humanity and its foibles.

Sometimes you are in the mood for a certain kind of take on reality. Maybe you’re in a foul mood and you need a little uplift, or perhaps at other times you feel the need for a little ballast in the form of a well aimed cutting satire.

I wonder whether it would be possible, using advanced techniques of machine learning, trained by the vast crowd-sourced corpus of the Web, to give a color or tone to any given post, so that a prospective reader could see at a glance what he or she might be in for.

I myself would be very interested to see such a “view from 50,000 feet” of my own blog, to gain some high level perspective on how my own mood and attitude may have changed here and there over these last months and years. It would be interesting to try to correlate those tonal shifts with events in my own life — or the lives of the people I love.

Generalizing, maybe we could all apply such a tool, if it existed, to our own emails, posts and tweets, to gain some insight into our own ever-shifting internal landscape of emotion over time, and perhaps learn a little more about ourselves, and how we cope with the winds of change in our lives.

Unexpected graciousness

October 17th, 2014

I flew on JetBlue last night, and had one of those mildly unfortunate experiences we’ve come to expect in air travel: The plane sat on the tarmac at JFK for a long time waiting for a cleared runway — a bit too long, as it turns out. While we were waiting, the pilot “timed out” — exceeding the amount of time he could spend, under FAA regulations, before taking a break between flights.

This added nearly two hours to the flight time, since we needed to go back to the gate, locate a different pilot, and then wait for all the paperwork to be done. If we had taken off five minutes sooner, we would have saved those two hours.

On the other hand, if our first pilot hadn’t “timed out” while waiting for that runway slot, the plane might have been flown across the country by a very tired pilot. So the way things work out was probably for the best.

I didn’t think much of this at the time. In recent years, air travel has become one long exercise in patience and acceptance of inconvenience. On the way off the plane, I joked about it to the flight attendants — I complimented the airline on providing “the greatest number of pilots I’ve ever had on a flight.”

But then today I got a very nice email from JetBlue apologizing for the inconvenience, and offering a $50 credit toward any future JetBlue flight. So I started investigating on-line, because I was curious to see whether they were obligated to do this.

And no, it turns out they are not. This was just their way of apologizing for customer inconvenience, even though nothing that had happened was actually their fault.

I wish more companies were so gracious to their customers!

The sliding scale of cultural relevance

October 16th, 2014

Since I am watching “The Gilmore Girls” fourteen years after its debut, of course I am looking for signs of creeping cultural senescence. So far, while the references to TV shows and hit songs is highly out of date (eg: today, Rory’s friend Lane would probably not be so eager to hang with M. Night Shyamalan), but the cultural sensibility is very up to date.

The further you go back in TV history, the harder it can be to connect. I’ve watched episodes of “I Married Joan” and “December Bride” on YouTube, and it feels as though I am looking into another universe. “Star Trek the Next Generation” seems decisively dated, and the original “Star Trek” even more so (in some ways, at least).

I wonder whether there is a way to quantify this. Can we attach some sort of score — perhaps based on a form of crowd-sourcing, to how up-to-date is the sensibility of a show?

On the other hand, it’s clearly not a linear scale. For example, I’m not sure, even centuries from now, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” will ever seem entirely irrelevant.

Out of sync

October 15th, 2014

I’ve just started watching “The Gilmore Girls”. Yes, I know, this is something that people were excited about fourteen years ago, and that hasn’t even been on the air for the past seven years. You might very well ask where I’ve been all that time.

The answer is, I really don’t know. It seems I’m out of sync. Not having a television (for me it’s all Netflix) I pretty much missed the original phenomenon, except as heresay. Then last night, being curious, I clicked on it. And was instantly smitten.

Most TV shows are pretty badly written, so it was a revelation to see something so consistently well penned. It has carefully wrought relationships, truly witty banter, honestly earned irony (as opposed to cheap snark), and genuinely multi-dimensional characters, who also happen to actually be literate and well read.

Although I was mildly taken aback when Lorelai, in the third episode, referred to a male massage therapist as a “masseuse”. I hope it was an isolated lapse.

Other than that, I am completely in awe. Amy Sherman-Palladino, where have you been all my life? And where are you now?

Well, actually, I know where she is now. Resting up after her latest series “Bunheads”, which starred Sutton Foster, so I’m sure it was also wonderful. Alas, it is not on Netflix. :-(

Not muggles

October 14th, 2014

Nobody wants to be a muggle.

This is ironic, since every single person who has ever read “Harry Potter” is, in fact, a muggle. And in a way that’s the entire point. Fantasy is a way for us to project ourselves into another place that is somehow better than where we are. It is the very implausibility of the fantasy that is its draw. If we could really jump into a painting, fall down a rabbit hole or step through a wardrobe to get there, it might lose its appeal.

Yet some us have the experience, every day, of not being muggles — those who create things by programming computers. I realize that this may not make a lot of sense to non-programmers reading this, but hopefully you’ll get the gist of it.

Most people who use computers think of them as mysterious things that you can only access through user interfaces. Whether you are using Word, GarageBand, Facebook or Illustrator, you are pretty much limited to pushing buttons, swiping screens, or maybe fiddling with a slider or two. Sometimes you also get to type in words and draw stuff.

But to somebody who programs, a computer is a completely protean device. You can use it to do anything. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. It is your magic carpet into a world of infinite possibility.

If you’ve read “Harry Potter”, you might recognize in those books how you felt when you first realized that programming is a path to limitless freedom and possibility. When you wrote your first real program, you were probably feeling pretty much the same way Harry felt when he first picked up his wand and cast a spell.

The difference, of course, is that when it comes to being able to program, nobody really needs to be a muggle.

These days

October 13th, 2014

Sometime last month I wrote here about Nico. Well, actually, I wrote about a play about Nico. Seeing that play got me wandering around on YouTube to hear the real thing.

Since then, I have no idea how many times I’ve clicked on Nico’s version of Jackson Browne’s song These Days. I keep coming back to it, and I never tire of giving it yet another listen. Her performance has a strange and powerful grip on me.

Which is really weird, because she sings off-key, with a very heavy accent, in a not very good tone, and with absolutely no vibrato or vocal technique at all, in the usual sense of the word.

But none of that seems to matter. This haunting rendition, backed by Browne himself on guitar, seems to get to the very heart of the song, reaching a place entirely beyond music in the conventional sense.

This performance of this song seems to me a precise evocation of a particular feeling that we all have, but that we almost never admit to. The feeling that life, love and connection, control over our own destiny, have all somehow become unmoored, and that we are adrift.

But also that we continue to have that one thing — the thing nobody else can ever completely understand — our own inner identity, however screwed up that may be. And that this sense of self will somehow see us through.

Somehow, miraculously, Jackson Browne had the insight to write this song when he was just sixteen years old. And in the hands of Nico, with her strange and relentless way of asserting a pure force of identity, it becomes a masterpiece.

The death of subtlety

October 12th, 2014

I’ve written before here about the delightful — if too little remembered — BBC series “The Champions”, which aired for one season in 1968-69. What set this supernatural spy show apart from all others was that the heroes all shared the same superpowers. So instead of each character’s superpower becoming a cheap short-hand for his or her personality, the show developed its character arcs the old fashioned way — through personality and relationships.

Since every supernatural ensemble since then has opted for the more obvious but less interesting route of “I have this particular superpower and therefore this is who I am”, (think: XMen, Heroes, The Incredibles, The Avengers, Alphas, the list goes on and on), I had despaired of anybody creating another series of superheroes who shared equal powers, and were therefore simply normal to each other.

Which is why I was looking forward to watching “The Tomorrow People”, a new American show that shares this fundamental idea (although it differs in many ways from the 1973 British children’s show on which it is loosely based). Alas, TTP is missing all of the subtlety of The Champions. And the wit. And the humor. And the irony. Except of course for the asian guy, who gets to say funny things from time to time, as a kind of consolation prize for the fact that there is no chance in hell he will get the girl (this being American television).

Everything is overdone, with characters displaying superpowers so spectacular that the show’s fundamental conceit — that humanity has not yet noticed them (because otherwise we would try to kill them) — is unbelievable to be point of being laughable. What is worse, the greatest superpower of all is the weirdly bland and uniform hyper-attractiveness of the boring young cast.

As I see it, if there really were such a rival race of super-beings among us, all of whom were somehow managing to hide in plain sight even though they keep lifting heavy objects with their minds and teleporting from place to place with flashy visual effects, there would still be a way we could hunt them down:

Just look for a group of really boring twenty-somethings who are all pretending to be in high school, and who all have eerily regular features, perfectly chiseled physiques, dangerously sharp cheekbones, and absolutely no sense of humor.

Then kill them.

On the other hand, if we did this, we might just end up wiping out significant portions of the population of Los Angeles. Which maybe wouldn’t be so bad, because then nobody could make more shows like this.


October 11th, 2014

Because I am getting on a flight today that will span many time zones, and I know I will need to deal with jet lag afterward, I spent a happy hour this morning reading all about Flat Earth theories. After all, if the world were not round like a ball, but rather “round like a plate” (as Imogene Coca once explained on “It’s About Time”), I wouldn’t need to worry about jet lag.

Once you start delving into Zetetic theories of our planet, you can read for hours. Not only is the Flat Earth Society alive and well, but it has all sorts of precedents that I found startling. For example, as late as 1605, it was universally accepted in Imperial China that the earth was flat, a belief dispelled only through the introduction, by Jesuits, of Western techniques of astronomy.

And reading this stuff reminds you of all sorts of things that you kind of knew, but hadn’t paid enough attention to. For example, although Pythagoras was saying as early as the 6th Century BC that the Earth is a sphere, it was the publication the Almagest by Ptolemy nearly seven centuries later that finally settled the issue for the ancient Greeks.

Maybe I will get over my jet lag by trying to read that.

Do you have to be dead to live forever?

October 10th, 2014

It seems pretty clear that one reason vampires are so popular in our culture is that they represent a fantasy that you can be young and beautiful and live forever.

It’s interesting how this acts as a sort of counter-weight to religion. Many organized religions tell us that yes, you need to grow old and die, but it’s ok, because afterward, you are going to move on to a better life in a realm beyond.

Religions also put a lot of effort into helping bind families together, through shared rituals, traditions and beliefs. This promotes another kind of immortality: I might die, but I will pass on a piece of my identity to my children, which they will pass on in turn to theirs.

But the vampire fantasy goes for the whole enchilada: I will literally be here forever, and I’m going to look great and have a fabulous time.

Of course there is a down side, and you can see this down side as a tension between the lure of the vampire and the dictates of prevailing religion. For one thing, they are, in a way, dead. They are also evil, selfish, and an abomination before God (as Catholic priests in vampire movies so often put it). And they don’t tan well.

It’s interesting to me that there are far fewer examples in popular culture of the immortal who is not dead.

So we have examples, but they are few and far between, and the gender balance is atrocious. There’s Gregory Widen’s Connor MacLead, Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, Jerome Bixby’s John Oldman, a handful of characters by Roger Zelazny, and not all that much more.

Well, not that much when compared with vampires. Our culture is lousy with vampires.

Why is this so? I suspect one reason might be that the living immortal does not provide a compelling counterpoint to prevailing religion, no built in pretext for a battle between good and evil. There is no cost exacted for cheating death, and no ticket to eternal damnation included in the price tag of immortality.