Archive for May, 2008

Holm for Mother’s Day

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

As I said yesterday, Gentleman’s Agreement is ostensibly a film about fighting the evils of antisemitism. It comes complete with a subplot involving John Garfield as an actual Jew who is far more heroic than Gregory Peck’s make-believe one.

John Garfield fighting antisemitism;
Gregory Peck and Celeste Holm look on

But it is also something Hollywood takes far more seriously: a romance. There are strict rules governing Hollywood romances, and Gentleman’s Agreement was, in addition to its heavyhanded political message, a Hollywood romance. Moss Hart’s screenplay went by the book: three acts, with each act serving a very particular purpose. In the first act, the Hero meets the Girl, and they both intuitively understand that they are destined to be together. In the second act, a conflict (ideally arising from character flaws) gets the better of them, and by the end of this act the hero and his love are separated.

This moment in a film is generally filled with despair: it could be anything from George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) stuck in the alternate universe where his wife doesn’t know him in It’s a Wonderful Life to Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) trying to pretend his character still makes a lick of sense after the idiotic plot twist that has separated him from his lyricist love interest (Drew Barrymore) in Music and Lyrics (audiences generally know when their intelligence is being insulted by lazy applications of the formula).

Finally in the third act the couple is reunited, wiser and stronger for having weathered their conflict. They and the audience now know that the two lovebirds will have what it takes to raise happy and well-adjusted children together, which is what all the fuss was really about, down there in the subtext.

As written by Moss Hart and directed by Elia Kazan, Gregory Peck’s character of Philip Green finds his dreamgirl in Dorothy McGuire’s character of Kathy Lacy. Although she is a sheltered girl-woman without any interesting thoughts or ideas, and no real sense of the world around her, Kathy has the qualities that post-War Hollywood knew were essential to being a good match for the alpha male: she is really, really pretty, and it is clear that there is no chance at all that she could ever symbolically emasculate Philip by being his intellectual equal.

In a formal sense of screenplay structure, the entire supposed theme of the film – the problem of American antisemitism – is merely a McGuffin to separate the guy and the gal at the end of the second act: Kathy uwittingly reveals that she herself harbors antisemitism. Until she shows that she can overcome this problem, the couple will not be able to get happily together again to start making those babies.

The rules say that this low point in the film needs to be signaled by an event that is utterly catastrophic to the hero’s psychic well-being. In the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, the (very effective) signal is George Bailey turning into a raving violent maniac. In Music and Lyrics the signal is Alex Fletcher betraying Sophie (Barrymore) in a way that is both ludicrous and wildly incompatible with everything the audience has learned about his character in the preceding hour (which is why it’s a terrible movie).

In Gentleman’s Agreement the evil appears in the form of Celeste Holm. Now, it’s important at this point to emphasize that Celeste Holm’s character, Anne Dettrey, is by far the most delightful person we meet in the film. As I said yesterday, she is brilliant, witty, gracious, has a wonderful sense of humor and is enormously perceptive and self-aware.

And yet, as written and directed, the second act slump – the emotional low point in the film, the terrifying pit of ultimate horror from which, once fallen, our hero can never escape, is the moment when Philip, left bereft by his apparent loss of Kathy, agrees to go out on a date with Anne.

Philip Green (Gregory Peck) with his two women

One would think that this turn of events would be a cause for celebration: Philip seems like a sensible fellow, and now he has finally gotten away from that wet blanket Kathy and found himself with a far more interesting woman. Yet the scene is played the opposite way: The independent career gal, brilliant, witty, good natured, fun and self-aware, is shown as the Enemy, the great destroyer, “She Who must be Slain”.

As far as I can make out, this is because she is supposed to be a spinster – a woman who is somehow past her prime, living for a career but secretly desperate for a man. And this makes her damaged goods.

There are so many ironies here. One of them is that Celeste Holm was actually a year younger than Dorothy McGuire when this film was made. Another is that a film which is so proudly and self-consciously focused on exposing the insidiousness of prejudice, is itself the embodiment of an especially snarky and destructive prejudice of its own – a prejudice against women.

There is a positive note to sound here, which is this: A movie that made this particular set of choices would make far less sense to today’s audiences. The enormous struggle by women to be valued as something more than pretty baby-making machines has been very successful – although of course there is a long way yet to go. In this age of the Internet, smart, independent and accomplished women are highly valued, and are recognized as sexy women.

So isn’t it wonderful that a great early feminist icon, the character of Anne Dettrey, was played by none other than the mother of the father of the internet?

When audiences responded to the sheer force of Celeste Holm’s sparkle and wonderfulness in the midst of an otherwise dreary and tendentious film, and the Academy rewarded her performance with a well deserved Oscar, perhaps that was the moment when the cultural tide started to turn. If so, what a wonderful Mother’s Day gift Ms. Holm has given to the world.

Gentleman’s agreements

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

As I was saying… Ted Nelson’s mother happens to be Celeste Holm, one of the greatest actors of stage and screen in the twentieth century. The film for which she won an Academy Award – for best supporting actress – was Gentleman’s Agreement.

This film iteslf was a polemic about antisemitism. (a “gentleman’s agreement” is an unspoken pact – in this case the unspoken agreement in much of WWII-era America not to allow Jews into housing, social clubs, restaurants, etc.). The set-up was quite simple: Gregory Peck plays a reporter who has just moved to New York and is asked to do a story about antisemitism in America. To get the inside scoop, he poses as a Jew. As Peck’s character experiences antisemitism first-hand, he (and the audience) gets a raised consciousness. The lesson he learns is quite specific: The real enemy is not the obvious racist, but rather the ordinary “good citizen” who goes along with racism.

Peck and McGuire share a moment

The timing of the film couldn’t have been more fortuitous: It was released in 1947 – just two years after the end of World War II. As America learned just what had been done to European Jews in the war, the nation was in a mood to be sympathetic toward Jews, even though antisemitism was still rampant in the U.S.. The film won three Oscars and was nominated for another five.

There are several women in the film, and therein lies today’s tale. Peck’s main love interest was played by Dorothy McGuire, a beautiful actress who radiated a kind of youthful femininity. Another woman he encounters, played by the aforementioned Celeste Holm (Ted Nelson’s mom), is perhaps the only character with whom we in the twenty first century can immediately like and sympathize. Not just as written, but also as played by Ms. Holm, she is enormously self-aware, open-minded, brilliant, with a gracious wit and a wry and subtle sense of irony that one associates not with characters in films of the post-war era, but more perhaps with the characters of Joss Whedon and Candace Bushnell.

The reason I think her character is so important is that the film’s explicit plot of unspoken antisemitism laid bare is accompanied by a secondary conflict: The film plays Dorothy McGuire’s beautiful and sheltered heiress Dorothy McGuire against Celeste Holm’s brilliant, fun and independent minded career gal, to an effect that speaks deeply to the theme of the story, but in a way that I’m guessing was not intended by the film’s creators.

We conclude tomorrow on, appropriately, Mother’s Day.

Ted’s mom

Friday, May 9th, 2008

There was an evening, some years ago, when I found myself having drinks with Ted Nelson. For those of you who don’t know, Ted Nelson is the person who first came up with the idea of the hyperlink – the basis of the internet: The idea that you can simply click on a piece of text in a document, and you are instantly taken to another document, which may be stored anywhere in the world. Sure, it sounds obvious now, but until Ted Nelson came up with this beautiful and elegant concept, nobody had ever thought of such a thing.

As you might well imagine, I was in complete awe of him. Here I was, slowly getting drunk with one of the premiere gods of the information age. Of course, there are gods and there are gods. And let’s face it, after you’ve had enough to drink, the only god you worship is Bacchus. Which is how it happened that, at a particular moment in the evening, I turned to my hero and said to him “You know, as much as I am in awe of your contribution to society, I am more impressed by your mom.”

There are at least two things that are interesting about this moment. One is the fact that I actually knew who Ted Nelson’s mom was. The other is that he completely agreed with me, and that he graciously ceded the point.

To put it bluntly, to me Ted Nelson’s mom is the unsung hero of proto-feminism. Long before Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, Ted’s mom created a cultural image that threw all our most insidious antifeminist prejudices back into our collective American face.

And although she was awarded for her pains what may very well be our culture’s most coveted honor, the true meaning of what she conveyed was so far ahead of its time that it would be decades before anybody could begin to understand its true significance.

More on this tomorrow.

Beam me up, Harry

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Much of the world is currently going through a phase in which people are spending more and more time typing on keyboards, moving mice around on their desktops, and staring at computer screens (like I am now). It’s possible that we’ll be spending more and more time doing this kind of thing in the coming decades.

But as Nintendo recently showed with their WiiMote, other paths are possible. Perhaps we are just in a transition period. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And I think that J. K. Rowling was getting at something very similar in her Harry Potter books.

Magic took the role of technology in Harry’s world. And all of the magical gizmos in that world had the sort of comfortable homey feeling of old England: People in newpaper photos waved to you, but they were still printed in black and white. Maps showed you the locations of anybody who was transgressing – but the map was printed on old parchment and you could roll it up and slip it in your pocket. People transported instantaneously between one place and another not in a shimmering beam of light but from the platform of an old London train station.

In a sense Rowling was presenting a very forward conception for the future of Human Computer Interfaces (HCI). Why shouldn’t HCI simply be what we want? Rather than people needing to retrain themselves to conform to whatever are the current limits of technology, why not envision a future in which technology conforms itself to precisely what makes us humans the most comfortable, to whatever best supports our social interactions with each other? That future would most likely entail the sorts of face-to-face personal interactions that our brains and bodies have evolved to be so good at.

If you really take Clarke’s dictum to heart (and I do) then there is a strong case that the long term path for interface technology – the way that will lead to information appliances really doing “what we want” – is likely to lead not to Star Fleet Academy, but to Hogwarts.

Scenes from the novel X

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

All that summer the children kept their secret. It wasn’t exactly that they didn’t want to tell their parents about the thing in the cave. They agreed that their parents wouldn’t have been believed them anyway, so it was ok. Each day they would trudge through the woods, past the old McLeary barn, over the creek and through the hole in the fence behind the abandoned dairy. It wasn’t exactly dishonest, keeping it to themselves. After all, nobody had even asked them about it, and if somebody doesn’t ask you about a thing, then it’s not lying if you don’t talk about it.

The most exciting discovery was that the thing could talk to them. At first both Jenny and Peter each thought that the voice was something inside their own head, like if you had a dream and you start to remember parts of it the next day. Then, when they discovered that the voice was saying the same thing to both of them, they began to understand that the thing was talking, in its way.

They would bring it little presents, sometimes scraps of food smuggled from dinner, which it would noisily devour. It didn’t have very good table manners, but that’s to be expected from a thing you find in a cave. Then it would go right back to building its contraption, tinkering, hammering, moving things here and there in what seemed like random order.

One day Peter brought it a little spool of copper wire from dad’s shop. He just knew that was what it needed, although he couldn’t have said how he knew. That was an exciting day for the creature. It turned the spool over and over in its long bony fingers, peering at it every which way, before starting to bite off short lengths of wire and place them here and there in the contraption, winding the ends around some of the little knobs that stuck out everywhere. In their heads the children could hear that their little friend was almost done, and they were very excited to see what would happen next.

By the end of the summer Jenny and Peter had gotten much better at silent talk, and they could even do it when their new friend wasn’t around. They would wordlessly tell each other jokes over dinner for practice. Sometimes they would both giggle out loud at the same time, and their parents would give each other worried looks. But Jenny and Peter knew there was no reason to worry. Soon there would be nothing for anybody anywhere to worry about. Not anymore.

A Mark of distinction

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

We’re not quite done with the seven dwarves. There is still the question of how to decide which dwarves can reach the nine button and which can only reach the eight button (the digits need to alternate in the right pattern for things to average out properly), but we can come back to that another time.

This evening I went with a friend to see the revival of the farce Boeing Boeing (in a translation by Beverley Cross of Marc Camoletti’s french original) on Broadway. I mostly went to see Mark Rylance, who is quite possibly the finest english speaking actor of his generation. He is a legend in the U.K., but virtually unknown here. I had been fortunate enough to see a number of productions that he had directed and acted in when he was the Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre in London. The sheer range of this man’s acting talent is bewildering – from Shakespearean tragedy to modern farce, he holds the audience completely in the palm of his hand at all times. Imagine what it might be like to play pick-up basketball with Michael Jordan: He might play down near your level to keep it fun, but the immense coiled strength and skill is always there, waiting to be unleashed in an instant.

At the Globe I had especially liked Rylance’s conception of Twelfth Night, the one where Viola dresses like a man, impersonating her twin brother Sebastian (whom she believes is dead). Duke Orsino, having fallen in love with the Lady Olivia, hires this comely young “man” as a go-between, whereupon Lady Olivia falls for Viola (whom she thinks is Sebastian) and Viola falls for Orsino – which is also awkward, because the Duke thinks she’s a man. Then of course the real Sebastian turns up, and everything goes pear shaped (a wonderful British phrase taught to me by a young lady from London).

Rylance went back to the custom of Shakespeare’s day, whereby all the parts are played by men. Of course in the 21st Century this makes for quite a different impression. Rylance cast himself as the Lady Olivia. Imagine if you will a man playing a woman tormented by her love for what she thinks is a young man, but who is actually a woman, who is also played by a man. Meanwhile, this second young man playing a woman playing a man is in love with the Duke, a man who is in love with the first woman being played by a man.

Got that?

Well, it worked splendidly, and the audience was able to follow every moment of it, largely because Rylance directed and played the part of Olivia with absolute conviction. In lesser hands this conceit could have been a complete mess, but Rylance’s powerful direction and performance ended up bringing out the strengths of Shakespeare’s immortal comedy of errors.

In Boeing Boeing Rylance plays a man from Wisconsin, and he slips into a flawless midwestern accent – most audience members will assume he’s from somewhere near Madison. The entire farce is a delight, a complete success, and much of the comedy rests on Rylance’s uncanny ability to channel the extreme emotions of farce, from shy sobriety to hysteria to uncontrollable lust, either switching between one and the next at the instant, or, on occasion, managing to convey all three at once.

The evening was lovely, and the audience very happy. At the end Christine Baranski, who plays a french servant eerily like Edna ‘E’ Mode (the fierce if diminutive fashion designer created, directed and played by Brad Bird in The Incredibles), flung her cigarette out to the audience, and it landed in my lap. I shall treasure it always.

From Dopey to Dopamine

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Continuing on from yesterday… Yann’s sparse numbers inspired me to think about how you might picture a base system that is not an integer – say 1.7, which is between one and two, or 9.3, which is between nine and ten. Doug’s comment the other day points to work that shows how to do this for one particular non-integer – the golden ratio φ, which is (1+√5)/2. But what about all the other non-integers?

Here’s a thought: Imagine Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has been reimagined by a crazed mathematician. In this version, each of the dwarves rides in an elevator – one elevator each for Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy and Sneezy. Each elevator represents one digit. When Snow White calls out a seven digit number, each dwarf is supposed to press the elevator button corresponding to his digit.

Snow White makes sure her elevator operators have clean hands

But there’s a problem – the dwarves might not be able to reach all the buttons, because some of the buttons might be too high and therefore out of reach:

Suppose the taller dwarves, Doc, Grumpy and Happy, can reach the ninth floor button, but the four shorter dwarves can only reach up to the eighth floor. Also, in a curious plot twist, our crazed mathematician author decides that Snow White can slip the dwarves a magic potion to make them all taller. As the potion continually increases everyone’s height, at some point each dwarf realizes he can reach one more button. By carefully doling out the magical potion, Snow White can set her button pushing friends to start to look like a base system between base to and three, or between base nine and ten, and so forth.

If we replace the dwarves by brain synapses, we can see that as we get more synapses firing, say if the brain’s dopamine level rises, then fewer neurons will be needed to represent the same variety of brain states. In effect, the brain is shifting further from base one and nearer to base two. Of course the scale is different: Snow White had only seven dwarves, whereas our brain has about 100 trillion synapses.

What would we call this way of representing numbers? Bashful binaries? Dopey decimals? Snow White and the Seven Digits? I’m open to suggestions.

Rounding the bases

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

As promised, the explanation. Which will require a little detour into the research of my brilliant colleague Yann LeCun, who creates machine learning algorithms. That is, he figures out how to get computers to learn. One of his inspirations comes from the way the human brain itself learns. And that can lead to some pretty interesting questions.

At some level, a computer’s memory consists of bits – and each bit can either be one or zero. There is something analogous that goes on in our brains. Each synapse of a neuron can be thought of as a bit. In response to stimuli from the world, a neuron can either fire a signal across that synapse (one) or not (zero).

It’s not hard to see that it takes a lot more energy for a neuron to make a one than to make a zero. In fact, if all of the neurons in our brain were to fire their synapses at once, the heat generated would fry our brain from the inside, and we’d be dead in less time than it takes to say “fried brains”.

Not surprisingly, the “bits” of our neural synapses tend to spend most of their time at zero, and much less time at one. This tendency saves our brains from frying, but at a cost: it means we need a lot more neurons. I’ll explain.

Given, say, a million different things to distinguish, if you had to have a synapse for each one, then you’d need to use a million synapses. This is the base one representation we talked about yesterday – like representing the number 42 with forty two zeroes. But there are many many millions of things that humans need to distinguish, and if we worked this way, pretty soon our brains would run out of space. This is sometimes known as the “Grandmother problem”: If there had to be a special synapse that fired only when you recognized your Grandmother (as well as one dedicated synapse for each such recognition task), then your head would probably need to be as big as a house. And that would most likely upset your Grandmother.

There are two opposing influences here: Our brains need to have a lot more zeroes than ones, so they won’t fry anytime we think too hard, but they can’t have all zeroes, or you run into the Grandmother problem. What the brain actually does is a compromise – something between base one (Grandma gets her own synapse) and base two (deep fried brain from too many synapses firing all the time). The brain actually works somewhere between base one and base two: mostly zero bits, and then the occasional one bit.

Yann uses something like this property in his work. Yann’s learning algorithms represent aspects of the things to be recognized as long strings of bits. In any given string, almost all the bits are zero, and only a few are one. Like 0000100001000000000100000100. It turns out that this is a good way to make machine learning algorithms efficient: by allowing the occasional one bit, the strings can be kept reasonably short (ie: you can avoid the Grandmother problem). And by making sure most of the bits are zero, you can get away with a lot less computation, because you can concentrate all of the computing work just where the one bits are. Just as your brain avoids getting fried by not firing too many synapses at once, Yann’s algorithms avoid frying the computer’s CPU by keeping down the number of computations.

This is all very interesting, but it’s a little abstract, isn’t it? Are we really talking here about something like base 1.7 or base 1.3? Well, yes we are. But in order to explain properly, I’m going to need to recruit that army of short people in elevators. Which I will do tomorrow.

Touching all the bases

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

Most people these days count in base ten. And most computers count in base two. In school we learn that there are other possibilities: like base one, or three or four or five. But nobody ever talks about base 1.7, or base 3.4, do they? Why is that? At this point you might be thinking “why would anybody want to count in base 1.7?” That’s a very sensible question. Well, ok then, I’ll tell you.

Let’s take the number 42 for example. It has two digits in base ten, right? Well, in base two it has six digits – 1010102 – in base three it has four digits – 11203 – and in base four it has three digits – 2224. In base one it’s a lot bigger:


That’s 42 zeros, in case you were wondering. But suppose you wanted to use about twenty digits to represent 42? Then you might want something between base one and base two.

Does this sound crazy? Well, it will probably get crazier. Tomorrow I’ll talk about why I’m thinking about this. It’s a tale that goes from brains that overheat when they think too hard, to problems with grandmothers, to computers that learn on their own, to armies of short people in elevators.

All this and more! Stay tuned.

Make believe it came from you

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Recently I was thinking about that wonderful old Ahlert and Young song I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter, and I wanted to make sure I had the lyrics right. So I did what most people do these days: I did an internet search. And I discovered, to my utter disbelief, that on the internet the lyrics did not exist.

Oh sure, there’s a Wikipedia page, where you can learn that Fats Waller had a huge hit with this song in 1935, and that since then it has been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby to Billy Williams (#3 on the charts) to Nat King Cole, Barry Manilow, Dean Martin, Scatman Crothers, and even Bill Haley (in a rock and roll version, of course). And if you type “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” into Google – with the quotes – you get about 136000 hits. But not a single one of those pages has the actual song lyrics themselves. Not one.

I was mentioning this over dinner recently to a group that consisted mainly of hip New York new media artists. They were pretty unanimous in their response of “Who cares?” Around the table there was general dismissal of my concern that great popular culture of eras past should be alive and celebrated on the internet. To me their attitude was incomprehensible. What are we here for if not to inspire those who come after, to pass the torch of what is best in our time and in times before, so that its light might illuminate the minds of the future?

Yes, I know you can purchase these recordings and transcribe the words for yourself, and I’m sure there are books with the lyrics printed in them. But we think of the internet as a vast and growing reflection of our culture; yet it has these sorts of strange and inexplicable holes in it. And it seems that many of the intellectuals of this new medium simply do not care.

Today I mentioned the strange absence of these song lyrics to my uncle Artie, who is in his seventies. He knew exactly what I was talking about, and seemed rather appalled that anyone would think of great song lyrics as disposable. Of course they were all right there in his head, fresh as the first day he heard them. And what did he do? He sat right down and wrote me out the lyrics:

I’m gonna sit right down
And write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you
I’m gonna whisper words so sweet
Gonna sweep me off my feet
Some kisses on the Bottom
I’ll be glad I got ’em
I’ll write and say I hope you’re feeling better
And close with love the way you do
I’m gonna sit right down
And write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you.

So there you have it – now he song is on the internet. Soon it will be up on Google. Then I’m gonna sit right down and search there for this lyric. And make believe it came from you.