Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Bonsai roots

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

This evening a friend took me to see Uncle Bonsai, an edgily funny deconstructionist alt-folk group that has been playing, recording and touring on and off for more than thirty five years.

At one point during the between-song banter, guitarist Andrew Ratshin started to wax rhapsodic about Wonderama, a kids’ TV show that reached its peak of popularity about half a century ago. Gazing misty eyed into the middle distance, he said “The show was never the same after Sonny Fox left.” **

He then turned to the audience and asked “How many people remember Sonny Fox?” A surprisingly large number of hands shot in the air.

At which point somebody from the audience shouted “Bob McAllister was better!” A hush fell over the crowd, and there was a moment of eerie silence.

Ratshin’s bandmate Arni Adler then turned to fix the heretic with an icy stare of disdain and disbelief. “After the show,” she said, “we’re taking this outside.”

** Sonny Fox left the show in 1967

The comedy of the commons

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Generally speaking, people are pretty good at keeping our lab’s kitchen clean. They wash their own dishes, put food away in the fridge, throw out their garbage after meals.

But people aren’t always perfect, and sometimes somebody leaves some paper plates on the table, or an unwashed mug ends up sitting in the sink. This makes nobody happy.

The other morning I came in to find some napkins and paper plates on the table. On top of them was a big handwritten paper sign. It said: “It’s rude to leave your stuff lying around.”

I could understand the frustration of the person who found the napkins and paper plates lying on the table. And I could see how they would want to send a clear message to the perpetrator.

But I also could see what this whole scene might look like from the perspective of an outside visitor to our lab. “Who are these people?” she might ask herself. “Are they engaged in some sort of ongoing domestic war? Do they even like each other?”

I did what I usually do when I see stuff lying around. I picked it all up off the table and I threw it in the trash — including the handwritten paper sign.

For me this is a typical response. When I see the occasional unwashed dish or mug in the lab sink, I just wash it and put it in the drying rack.

There is a part of me that wonders whether I am being an enabler, whether maybe there is a better path. But if that “better path” is to shame people, I’d prefer to stick to the path I’m on.

After all, as a faculty member it’s part of my job to invite visitors to our lab, so I always need to see what our lab looks like from the perspective of those visitors. And when you look at it that way, the occasional dirty mug in the sink is a lot more acceptable than evidence of shaming.

That song in your head

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Have you ever gone through an entire day, and then realized, only toward the end of the day, that all day long a particular song had been running through your head? That happened to me today.

The funny thing is that it has happened to me lots of times before. And I generally don’t realize, until the end of the day, that I have been playing the same song in my head for hours on end.

I suspect that this may be a widespread phenomenon. And I also suspect that it’s a sort of “pearl in the oyster” sort of thing.

In other words, somebody says a random phrase, or you have a particular experience, which gets a bit of remembered song lyric into your head. You don’t really take note of that initial experience, but your brain latches on to that moment, like the grain of sand in an oyster, and builds upon it.

Before you know it, the song is playing in your head. Except you don’t realize, until much later in the day, that you’ve been playing, on an endless loop, that song in your head.

The most productive decision

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I took the entire day off. I stayed home, did all of the New York Times crossword puzzles (between Saturday and Sunday there are a lot of puzzles), binged on Netflix, raided the fridge, binged on Netflix some more, and just generally goofed off.

Toward the evening I wandered into the lab and worked for a few hours. I didn’t really get much done, but I sort of got clear in my head what I really wanted to get done.

Then I went home, fell asleep by 11pm, woke up early this morning, and headed back to the lab. By 8am I was at work, and I ended up having one of the most productive days I’ve had in years.

I tackled bugs in my software that I had been sure would be forever unsolvable. And they fell apart like tissue paper, transformed into clean working code before my eyes, because I finally had the clarity of mind to approach them from a fresh viewpoint. I dove into project reports and research descriptions that I had been procrastinating over and avoiding. And they turned out to be easy to write — fun, in fact!

I am quite certain that the events of these two days were strongly linked. The choice to deliberately take an entire day off was probably the most productive decision I could have made.

Killing your own supporters, for fun and profit

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

So now the creepy reality show idiot has decided to go out of his way to create a two-tiered system of healthcare. The poor, the infirm — many of the very people who voted for him, expecting something much better than they got — are the victims here.

Most people who have money, power, privilege, will be just fine. In other words, everyone he knows.

But if you aren’t the “right sort” of American — if you were not born to privilege and power, if you’re a working class citizen struggling to get by — then you won’t be covered for maternity leave, or for pre-existing conditions, or for mental health issues, or if you sustain a serious injury.

The message is extremely clear and unambiguous: If you are not a person of privilege in this country, then you are now considered a lesser human being. Your life simply isn’t important, and nobody really cares if you or your family get sick or die.

I wonder how many of the people who voted for this moron realize what he is doing to them and their children?

Paraskevidekatriaphobic haiku

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Friday the thirteenth
And nothing bad has happened.
Should I be worried?

The fourth wall, revisited

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

In theater, the direction toward the audience is called “the fourth wall”. Most of the time, the characters on stage are not aware that we are there, watching them. Only in experimental theater and works inspired by Vaudeville do they actually look out across the footlights and acknowledge our presence.

In cinema it is rare indeed for a character to breach the fourth wall. The only person I can think of in cinema history who was able to do it well was Groucho Marx. Bugs Bunny had an easy time of it as well, but he had the superpower of being a toon.

Every time a fictional character acknowledges us, the “magic circle” of storytelling is weakened. Without this magic circle firmly in place, the entire trust relationship underlying our willing suspension of disbelief is prone to collapse.

One trick that is sometimes used in cinema is to erect an inner fourth wall. This was done rather famously in The Ring. When a nightmarish figure crawls out of a TV screen within the movie we are watching, we vicariously share the horror of a character in the story. as he experiences the unexpected collapse of the safe distance between “media” and “reality”.

As we move to more immersive media, such as virtual reality, I wonder how that will change our relationship with the fourth wall. Imagine, for example, some future where VR experience, within which we are watching a movie of The Ring. Within the movie, we see a nightmarish figure crawl out of a TV set, and we witness the mounting horror of the unfortunate character who was watching that TV set.

But then we see that same nightmarish figure crawling out of the screen that we are watching, and start to head our way. I wonder what we will think.

Future news

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

Journalism changes with evolving means of distribution. We have gone from the Town Crier to Newspapers to Web-based news to alerts on your phone.

With each evolution in the means of distribution, our patterns of news consumption change. This in turn changes how news is distributed.

Currently, if you get a news alert, you need to stop whatever conversation you are having in order to read and digest it. But just because delivery of news is like that now, doesn’t mean that delivery of news will need to be like that in the future.

Once wearables become ubiquitous, you and I will no longer find it necessary to interrupt our conversation in order to look at or listen to a news item. All of the information we want will appear to be floating in the air in front of us.

And that in turn will lead to interesting changes in how that news is delivered. News will no longer be packaged to be consumed during the times when we are alone, but will rather become intended source material for us to consume during our face to face conversations.

We will become used to maintaining the richness of eye contact, facial expression, body language and gesture, while also having the news of the world filter into our discussions with each other as we speak. Consequently, that news will become more granular.

At the same time, news providers will begin to provide unobtrusive means for us to navigate the news together, without interrupting our conversation. As we discuss a news feed with each other, we will continually be making cooperating decisions about how to explore that news feed together.

This will become a new kind of skill, a facility for cooperative conversational navigation of the news, which will become so ubiquitous that people won’t even realize they are doing it. Sort of like the ability to read is today — a skill that is near-universal in many parts of the world, which would seem completely astonishing to a person from a pre-literate society.

A simple plan

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Today I wanted to suggest a direction to some students for a research project. It’s such a simple plan, I thought to myself.

So I gathered them into our conference room, and described the project, jotting down notes on the wall-sized whiteboard as a went. There was this piece and that to implement, and these people to work with, and that production schedule, because some things need to happen before others.

Soon I needed to move to another part of the whiteboard to start a new section of the description, because there was a part of the project I hadn’t thought about explaining. Then that part of the whiteboard filled up as well.

By the time I was done, my simple plan was filling a large portion of the wall-sized whiteboard. There were a lot of moving parts, and ways that they needed to fit together.

It had all seemed so simple when it was still all in my head. I guess in the real world, no plan is that simple.

Future present

Monday, October 9th, 2017

An interesting question has recently come up in our lab’s research: Suppose you could perfectly reproduce the sensation of being in the physical presence of another person, so that remote conversation with that person is indistinguishable from the presence of a person who is physically with you. In what ways would it continue to matter that the person you are talking to is not actually in the same room with you?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we are yet at the point where this is possible. The detection of physical presence involves subtleties of vision, audio, touch, vibration, even smell, that may be well beyond our current level of technology.

Yet I think the question remains valid for any level of technology, whether past, present or future. For example, we are perfectly willing to have a telephone conversation with somebody, even though our remote interlocutor is not visible to us. This is because we understand the nature of phone technology, and we find ourselves able to use that technology to communicate with each other despite its limitations.

I have no doubt that it will always matter to us whether or not somebody is actually with us in the same physical room. Hence the question: After technology has advanced to the point where sensory reproduction at a distance can be absolutely perfect, what will remain as the essential difference between actual physical presence and the mere illusion of physical presence?