Archive for September, 2008

Below the surface

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Below the surface, things are not always what they seem. Some years ago I went scuba diving in the Florida Keys with my friend Courtney. It was boat diving – the dive master takes you and all the equipment out on a motorboat to some spot where there is a particularly beautiful reef, then you suit up, go down off the side of the boat and explore the reef while he waits up on the surface.

Those of you who”ve done it know that scuba diving is a lovely but somewhat peculiar experience, from a social perspective. One moment you and your friend are chatting away in the boat, talking about whatever, and then suddenly you are both plunged into a world of total silence – a kind of self-imposed deafness – in which all you can do is gesture and point. Communication is abruptly reduced to the equivalent of “check out this thing over here,” and, “wow, that’s a cool eel, isn’t it?” But it’s really ok. You didn’t come all the way out here to chat. You can do that over a beer on shore afterward, comparing notes about the school of clown fish you both saw, or the barracuda that swam by, almost close enough to touch.

On this particular day there were only four passengers on the boat – the two of us and a couple that at first seemed very quiet. Courtney and I soon realized that they were quiet because they were deaf – from time to time one of them would sign something, and the other would sign back. By the time we were all suiting up the other couple were signing continuously, presumably discussing all the things they were hoping to see on the dive.

Finally everyone was ready to dive, the dive master gave everyone’s equipment a last safety check, and one by one the four of us went over the side. It took me a while after we were submerged, plunged into a world of watery silence, to register the fact that the other couple had not even paused in their conversation. There below the surface, swimming through the coral reefs, amidst the sunfish and clown fish, moray and barracuda, the two of them were still chatting merrily away, while Courtney and I looked on in dumb astonishment.

It was a humbling experience.

Unwritten rules

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Yesterday’s post was about the odd sensation of having an idea, neglecting to write it down, and then forgetting the idea – while still recalling that it had been really cool. So why don’t I write down ideas as soon as they occur to me? Generally because they usually occur to me while I’m in the middle of a fascinating conversation with a friend.

Up to now I haven’t thought it socially appropriate, while in the middle of such a conversation, to pull a pen and piece of paper out of my pocket and start scribbling away. At the very least I’ve always felt I would be disrupting the rhythm and flow of the discussion. At the worst, I worry about sending an inadvertent signal to my friend that I’d rather be jotting off some note to myself than listening to their fascinating thoughts.

I can see two possible solutions here: One is to come up with some social etiquette that would make it all ok. Something to say along the lines of: “Wow, this topic we’re discussing is so cool that I’ve got to write it down, because I’d like to think about it some more.” In other words, deliberately drawing attention to the act of writing, as a way of reassuring the other person that they are indeed important to the process.

Another way would be to invent some form of stealth writing – a way to copy down a thought without needing to take a time-out. This has the advantage that it doesn’t get in the way of the conversational flow. After all, an announcement that you are taking notes seems likely to kill spontaneity.

Over the last day or so, I’ve found myself working on this latter solution – a simple way to type up some notes without needing to take my eyes off the person I’m talking to. Interestingly, On an ethical level I find this perfectly acceptable, whereas I would find it appallingly unethical to surreptitiously make an audio recording of a conversation. There is clearly an ethical distinction here, but what is it exactly?

I think the difference is that writing something down, even in a stealth way, is still in the category of organizing your own thoughts. You indeed have the right to do that. Notes that you jot down are simply prosthetic devices to help you traverse your own mental map of the world – like tying a string around your finger. So when you transcribe thoughts from one part of your mental map into another, you are doing so within your own legitimate mental turf.

But once you make a surreptitious recording of the other person, you have stepped onto their turf. They have every right to expect that their act of conversing is a one-time performance, intended for an audience of one – you. You might be within your rights to convey their thoughts to the world at large (unless they’ve told you not to) – but you are not within your rights to convey their performance of those thoughts – that was never part of the conversational bargain.

Unwritten

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

When you write a blog entry every day, everything you see or hear becomes potential source material – a chance remark by a friend, an evocative phrase you happened upon in a book, or a shadow within the smile of a stranger that reminds you of something your mom told you one summer evening when you were seven. After a while, you realize that every day is filled to the brim with fascinating and wondrous possibilities of things to write about. When taken all together, the daily opportunities add up to far more, in fact, than a mere mortal ever could write down within a twenty four hour period.

Buf of course not all blog opportunities are equal. Some are merely amusing – the Oreo cookies of blogging. You know that if you go there, everyone will have a good laugh, but there really won’t be much inside other than tasty sugar creme. Other ideas, however, are quite deep – they resonate with passions or beliefs that have been stirring within you, sometimes for years, sometimes without you ever having recognized them until that moment.

Of course I look for the latter topics, when I can spot them – the occasional hearty meals that I can tuck away between the daily offerings of sweet tasty verbal desserts. There is that delicious moment when I know – I just know – that the thought that has just flickered into my brain is going to lead to a deep and satisfying discussion about something that is truly worth talking about.

But the strange thing is that quite often, even after having had this kind of epiphany, I arrive at home and realize that I have absolutely no recollection of what that wonderful idea was. It’s gone, simply gone. It goes up on that shelf where we put all the things that got away, where we keep our encounters with roads not taken – kisses not kissed, childhood dreams forgotten, poems unwritten, and truths never revealed.

Today I had such an epiphany, but it is lost now. I know I had it – I can still remember the moment when I had the thought, while I was on the subway platform waiting for the F train, and even now l can nearly taste the sense of elation and discovery. But I didn’t write it down, and now it has gone away. Perhaps somebody who took a later train will come upon it, sense it in the air, and will somehow pick it up. Maybe that person has a blog, and they will send the idea out into the world, where one day I will read it.

I am quite sure I will recognize it when I see it.

Talk to me

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

We all know that we have moods, that we shift between many internal states of being over the course of a day. The causes vary – food, rest, stress, who we’ve just talked with, how much noise there is in the room, what we happen to be doing. In this sense we all have multiple selves, somewhat different versions of the “I” that swap in and out as needed. Most of the time when people look at us, they can’t tell right away (unless they know us very well) which version of us they are dealing with.

In most contexts – generally those that involve people we don’t know very well – we learn to mask this highly charged variety, to present a uniform front, dispite the continually changing landscape within. For this reason, most of us go through a day with the odd sensation that, whereas our internal mental state is changing from moment to moment, the internal state of those around us is not. Of course this is an illusion, the result of social conventions playing out.

I wonder what it would be like to have a conversation with yourself – between the “I” in one mood and the “I” in a very different one. I don’t think this is an experience most of us are likely to have. You can read things you’ve written while you were were in a particular state of mind, or watch a video tape, and perhaps have that “aha” experience of recalling what it was like to be in that mood. But that’s not the same thing.

I suppose you could simulate such a conversation by patient turn-taking. Write something down while you’re in a thoughtful or reflective state of mind, then wait until you are in a giddy mood to respond. Keep going back and forth like this over time, until a conversation emerges. Surprising things might come out of this. It could turn out, for example, that one part of your personality does not particularly agree with another part about various issues or beliefs – the kind of disagreement that only comes to light over time, through conversation.

Unfortunately I can see a problem with attempting such an experiment: Right now, in the state I am in as I write this – somewhat contemplative, wanting to look inward and to learn more – I might think that such a conversation is a fine idea. But at some other time of the day, when I’m in a very different mood, I might think it’s just plain dumb.

And you can’t have a conversatoin with somebody who doesn’t want to, can you?

Back to the future

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Has it occurred to anyone other than me that the Web is built backwards?

When you read a web page, you generally have the option to click on what are generally referred to as “forward links”. Yet in what sense do those links move you “forward”? Clearly the author of the page you are currently reading could only have incorporated links to pages that had already existed, before the one you are reading.

So in reality the next page you jump to is, to a first approximation, older than the page you were just reading. From the time you did the Google search that got you started, you are almost always traveling back in time, from newer pages to older pages. And yet we all have the feeling, while engaged in this process, that we are somehow moving “forward” – looking through our virtual windshield at the cyber-landscape rushing past, as we drive bravely into the future, click by intrepid click.

Whereas the actual process is more akin to skipping to the reference section at the end of a book, looking up the source for something, then going back to the library shelf to pull down an older book, skipping to the reference section of that book, and so on. Or, to continue the vehicle metaphor, it’s as though we are driving furiously backwards, while knowledge of the future recedes ever further away with each passing moment.

What would an truly forward-linking web look like? Is such a thing even imaginable? Not since Ted Nelson’s Xanadu has there been a major push even to support such a thing. What comes to mind when I think about it is a hypothetical reverse use of the Google indexing engine: Every time you post a page, web crawlers scour your content, looking for something relevant, and remember what they find for later. Then as people add more pages, sometime in the day or decade to come, your page is modified – a helpful link is added, pointing to the future knowledge that later flowered from your humble seed of thought.

Such a structure might have a completely different sociology from the one we now know. People might get into the habit of following arguments from their beginnings to their conclusions. Perhaps people would become more motivated to plant their thoughts in the fertile loam of cyberspace, in hopes that something beautiful would emerge as their ideas were joined by the answering ideas of others, building into crystalline structures of evidence and inference that spiraled upward into cathedral spires of progressive thought, lasting monuments to a renaissance of shared intellectual enlightenment.

But of course it could never catch on. You have merely to look around you to realize that people are much happier when they can start an argument from its conclusion and work their way backward to whatever ideas they already had in their head. Perhaps, when all has been said and done, we got the Web we deserved.

Sigh.

The Palin Doctrine

Monday, September 15th, 2008

I think that people are greatly underestimating Sarah Palin. She has been quite consistent in a very essential way: Since her selection, every time she has been asked by anyone about an issue of substance, she has looked the speaker straight in the eye and proceeded, rather dramatically, to act as though she did not understand the question.

I know a lot of people have been denigrating the Governor, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt here: She is, after all, the chief executive of a major American state, as well as a very active member of the political party that for the last seven years has defined its foreign policy around the Bush doctrine of preemptive invasion of overtly hostile nations.

Under the circumstances, Governor Palin would need to be a complete and blithering idiot in order to actually not know what the Bush doctrine is – or in fact be unaware of the concept of a “presidential doctrine” (as she recent implied in one non-answer). Worse, such ignorance on her part would suggest that John McCain and his advisors were extraordinarily incompetent in choosing her for the ticket.

Rather than insult the Governor with insinuations of utter witlessness, I think we can all agree, given the fact that she is on the Republican presidential ticket, that she in fact does know the basic ABC’s of the field of American foreign policy, but has simply been pretending, for strategic reasons, that she does not.

This is where we begin to catch a glimpse into the fascinating and brilliant mind of Sarah Palin. By making an explicit policy of rejecting any embrace of logic, experience, or even the rudimentary tenets of competency, she is flinging a gauntlet, issuing a challenge to the nation – making it crystal clear that she represents a new, post-millenial, order of things.

What Palin is clearly saying is that it is time to end the “tyranny of the competent”, that this insidious strain of elitist thinking has gone too far. She is fighting the elitist implication that people can actually be “good at things”, that to understand such complex concepts as multilateral international cooperation or the conflicts between mercantalism and expansionism, years of serious study and practice are preferable to, say, knowing how to shoot a moose.

Haven’t you ever been annoyed by that guy at the party who plays piano better than you, just because he’s been a concert pianist for the last fifteen years? You were doing fine impressing the gals with your rendition of Heart and Soul (with both hands!). But after he sat down and gave a flawless performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata in its entirety, that cute girl you’d been chatting up ended up going home with him. The bastard.

Well, the Palin Doctrine will put an end to such nonsense! From now on, ordinary folks who have been humiliated – by those fiends who intimate through study, learning, and dutiful practice – will at last have their day.

Imagine the world that Palin is offering, a world free from the tyranny of competence! Your money will be in the hands of an accountant who refuses to embrace such arcane concepts as “interest” and “dividends”. Who cares whether your life savings increment or decrement? That’s just elitist talk. The important thing is that your accountant won’t be acting all superior, like he knows something you don’t.

Tired of going to a dentist who has a million ornery plaques and diplomas on the wall, and funny little instruments that look like they were made by martians? Once the Palin Doctrine becomes the law of the land, you can be sure your dentist won’t act like she knows any more than you do. Bring your own drill if you like – the same one you used to assemble that bookcase last summer. I mean, heck – if you’re going to let a stranger drill holes in your teeth, at least you’ll want to know where that drill bit has been.

Once you understand what Governor Palin is up to, then you can truly begin to appreciate her genius. This is a leader with the courage to promise no less than a radical rethinking of America, to hold forth the vision of a new world order that will end, once and for all, the reign of those pesky intellectual elites who have been making everyone else feel out of the loop.

There is an alternate possibility: That we have somehow managed to place somebody a heartbeat away from the presidency who sincerely does not know what a “presidential doctrine” is.

But that would be absurd.

Lyrical tendencies

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

At a time in our nation’s history when many are asking deep and often disturbing questions, I humbly add one more: Why is it that some of the best movie theme music has no lyrics?

TRON for example. I’ve searched high and low, but apparently Wendy Carlos’ brilliant and moving score for this groundbreaking 1982 film is purely orchestral; no lyrics were ever penned.

Today I correct this egregious omission:

There I was, playing some arcade game
Now I’m here, trapped inside the mainframe

All at once I fell,
OK, what the hell???
Guess it’s just as well
Um, I could stay a spell

Hey there’s TRON! He fights for the user
Master Control, you will be the loser

In the end we’ll see
Programs running free
From the evil M…C…P!

I encourage you to perform the same vital service for your favorite lyric-challenged movie theme. Though I must warn you that some of the best movie theme music has already been claimed. Witness, for example, this now classic film score interpretation by Bill Murray, performing as the inimitable lounge singer Nick Winters:

Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars
Give me those Star Wars
Don’t let them end…

I am humbled to be in the presence of such greatness. Aren’t you?

Still, many opportunities remain for you, my fellow poets of the cinematic arts, to contribute to this important service. I believe, for example, that the theme from Jaws is still fair game.

Feel free to jump in. :-)

Useful stuff

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

I’ve started reading Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother, and so far I’m loving it. It’s aimed for a teen readership, and it pulls no punches. We’re treated to issues of government abuse of power, the individual versus the state, and personal empowerment through mastery of high technology. One thing that I am finding remarkable about it is the way that Doctorow weaves in accurate tidbits of high technology, tossed off in the casually breezy voice of his teenage protagonist. Here, for example, is a perfect explanation of Bayesian statistics:

“Thomas Bayes was an 18th century British mathematician that no one cared about until a couple hundred years after he died, when computer scientists realized that his technique for statistically analyzing mountains of data would be super-useful for the modern world’s info-Himalayas.

Here’s some of how Bayesian stats work. Say you’ve got a bunch of spam. You take every word that’s in the spam and count how many times it appears. This is called a “word frequency histogram” and it tells you what the probability is that any bag of words is likely to be spam. Now, take a ton of email that’s not spam — in the biz, they call that “ham” — and do the same.

Wait until a new email arrives and count the words that appear in it. Then use the word-frequency histogram in the candidate message to calculate the probability that it belongs in the “spam” pile or the “ham” pile. If it turns out to be spam, you adjust the “spam” histogram accordingly. There are lots of ways to refine the technique — looking at words in pairs, throwing away old data — but this is how it works at core. It’s one of those great, simple ideas that seems obvious after you hear about it.

It’s got lots of applications — you can ask a computer to count the lines in a picture and see if it’s more like a “dog” line-frequency histogram or a “cat” line-frequency histogram. It can find porn, bank fraud, and flamewars. Useful stuff.”

    – Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

Isn’t that simply lovely?

Webcams

Friday, September 12th, 2008

I suppose I was being heavy-handed in yesterday’s post, but perhaps heavy hearts call for heavy hands. The positive way to say it is this: As soon as I went to the Page to contribute to the Obama Campaign, typed in my credit card number and sent off my $2300, it was as though a great weight had been lifted.

This way, should I wake up on November 5 to find (shudder) that the country has voted for four more years of this nonsense, I’ll know it won’t be because I couldn’t spare a little travel money for some kid volunteering to get the vote out in Ohio.

On the other hand, perhaps the world has bigger fish to fry (no, that “fish” reference was not a secret way of insulting John McCain). A friend sent around an email the other day pointing out that the universe had not, after all, fallen into a black hole when the CERN Large Hadron Collider went into operation near Geneva.

Trying to be objective about the whole thing, I chimed in with the following:

I would just like to add, for the record, that operation of the new Large Hadron Collider has not, as some have feared, induced the formation of a black hole, thereby swallowing up our solar system together with everything in it.

Of course I could be wrong. Since yesterday we might actually all be living in a Bose-Einstein Condensate, caught for the rest of our subjective lives between two successive moments in the “real” universe that surrounds the recent local region of collapse, reduced forever to the lowest quantum state of our external potential, only manifested on a macroscopic scale.

But this may always have been true anyway…

In response, several friends sent fun and exquisitely learned emails, in which they discussed the apparent impossibility of knowing for certain whether the universe you experience is real or merely an illusion.

But the link that somebody eventually sent around took first honors, hands down, for its sheer awesome coolness.

Getting serious

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

For obvious reasons, given what date it is, today I spent a lot of time thinking about the country I live in, a country I love quite dearly. And I realized that we are on the threshold to one of two very different futures. I thought about the people I care for, and I realized that each of us does have the power to make a difference.

If you live in a place like New York it might not seem as though much is happening – you don’t get any sense of where the candidates are spending their money. Obviously they aren’t spending it in New York, since the electoral vote here is already a foregone conclusion.

No, the money is all going, in various proportions, to the swing states: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. If you live in one of those states you are being inundated by campaign advertising.

The ability of each candidate to win each of those states is limited by his ability to get the word out – door-to-door canvassing, leaflets, TV ads, print ads, and so forth. All of which takes money.

If you are reading this blog, you probably favor Obama in November. You are saying no to another “hundred years” in Iraq, no to criminalizing the fourteen year old rape victim who isn’t ready to be a mom, no to bringing this beautiful nation a heartbeat away from becoming a theocracy.

If that is the case, and unless you are poor, if you haven’t already given the maximum of $2300 to the Obama campaign, shame on you. We’re talking thirteen swing states and less than two months to go. Your money is the only money available to pay for winning the raging battle in those states.

Ask yourself this: if McCain wins in November, what is that $2300 going to be worth to you? Do you really think it will continue to matter how much money you have in the bank, after four more years of Bush-style government? When the child of one of your friends dies in combat in yet another ill-conceived war? When those dollars themselves have become even more devalued through incompetent fiscal management driven by ideology?

I know quite a few of you personally, and yes, I’m thinking of you. Go to http://www.barackobama.com, put in your credit card number, and give them the damned $2300 already. It might very well be the soundest investment you will make in a very long time.