Archive for February, 2009

The inverse law of gee-whiz

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Many people go to movies to see visions of the future. There is that gee-whiz moment when you see some fantasy version of future technology, and a little voice in your brain says “I want one of those!”

Just to list a few of many examples – the “Star Trek” transporter, “Star Wars” holovideo (well ok, that one is really a rip-off from “Forbidden Planet”), the “Minority Report” gesture wall, or flying cars from countless films like “Blade Runner”, “Back to the Future” and “The Fifth Element”.

One odd thing about all of these things is that their gee-whiz factor stems partly from their very unreality. We know in our gut that these are visions not from our real future, but from the future as it might exist in some alternate universe. Each of them breaks one law or another that we sort of already know about, even if we’ve never really thought about it before.

The transporter violates so many laws of physics, from the laws of thermodynamics to laws of computational complexity, that it fairly screams “Not really possible!” Similarly, the coolness of the holovideo lies precisely in the fact that it seems to defy fundamental laws of optics – “projected” light is bending and scattering in mid-air, without bouncing off of anything. (Full disclosure: We actually worked on something like this in our lab a while back, but we cheated. Our “holodust” system bounced light off the dust in the air).

The “Minority Report” wall seems vaguely plausible until you start to think how it would feel to hold your arms up in the air all day, just to use your computer. It wouldn’t be very pleasant. But that’s precisely the point. We are being told, on a subliminal level, that this is not really our future, but a fantasy of our future.

Flying cars actually exist, but they are noisy, they consume alarming quantities of fuel, and their powerful ducted fans tend to create very unpleasant effects upon anyone unfortunate enough to be standing underneath one. This one is really a fantasy not about flying cars per se, but about effortless anti-gravity. In other words, a leap from real physics to fantasy physics.

Ironically, many of the innovations that have turned out to have the greatest impact on our lives are the least visible. We never notice the air conditioner (until it stops working). Yet it has completely transformed our nation’s landscape. For example, without A.C. there could be no office buildings or other high rises in places like Atlanta Georgia – still be fairly rural agrarian communities.

Similarly, the washing machine was a revelation when it first arrived on the scene. Hard as it is to imagine now (society has evolved quite a bit), many women were once virtually slaves to laundry – needing to spend large numbers of hours each day hand-washing clothes for a family.

There are many inventions like this. Completely unglamorous – we don’t even notice them – but they have transformed our lives, in some cases vastly for the better.

Perhaps the real importance of an invention can be measured as roughly inverse to its gee-whiz factor. Certainly not always, but often enough that it might be a useful yardstick (aha, another really useful, if unglamorous, invention…).

The villain of the piece

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

I have been watching the furor over the public release of information that baseball star Alex Rodriguez used an unapproved steroid around 2003. What I don’t understand is why he is being made into the villain of the piece.

So many people have expressed public rage toward him. Clearly taking enhancement drugs was not heroic, but neither was it all that out of the norm for that time. The voluntary testing in 2003 (with guaranteed privacy) was initiated precisely because organized baseball was aware that the taking of enhancement drugs – which was not yet clearly regulated in 2003 – was likely pervasive, and deeply embedded in player culture. The goal was to change that culture by initiating regulations – which was done the following year.

The worst you can say about A-Rod was that he claimed in interviews that he’d never taken performance-enhancing drugs. Lying in interviews is certainly not heroic behavior, but neither is it illegal. The fact that people are so upset by that speaks mainly to our crazy collective fantasy that sports figures are supposed to be something other than what they are – highly talented professional entertainers. It’s a little like saying that because Amy Winehouse is a great singer, she also needs to be an exemplary human being. Who are we fooling here?

But I’m not here today to talk about A-Rod. He’s not the villain of the piece. The villain is whoever took the fateful step, along what was apparently quite a long chain of steps – to make this privileged information public.

We might start with the federal subpeona of the test results during the 2003 BALCO investigation, but it’s clear that these federal investigators were operating with every expectation that the information they had seized would not become public, so they are almost certainly not our villains.

I understand that the leak was provided by four different anonymous sources – which is what gave Sports Illustrated the confidence to print the info. I would argue that the true villainy here is shared, in various amounts, by those four sources and the decision-making managing editor of S.I.. Compared with these folks, A-Rod is as innocent as a lamb.

Why do I say this? Because what these people did is attack you personally – you who are reading this. You put confidential medical information down in a lease or a contract, you provide confidential information about your child’s behavior problem to his teacher – under written guarantees of privacy. You type your private phone number into a Web form that explains it will never release that info, or look for informatoin using a search engine after reading the policy that clearly states your query terms will not be shared with anybody. You talk to your doctor about your wife’s bouts with depression, and her fears that her condition might become publicly known.

You do many things in the course of a day or week or month that involve a clear and explicitly stated contract of privacy. What these villains have done is take that away from you. Your rights, your privacy, the ability to shut your door and have a private conversation. Apparently none of it is real – your silly little illusion that you are entitled to the simple dignity of having people honor their word to you.

This is what has been taken from you by the villains of the piece. And you will not get these things back that you have lost unless the law recognizes that a crime has been committed – against all of us.

So the next time you rail against A-Rod, please keep in mind that you, or even your child, could be next.

I love WordPress

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Today I took the great plunge.

After almost two years of sticking with my now woefully out of date WordPress version 2.3 for this blog, I finally upgraded (just a little while ago) to the latest and greatest – WordPress version 2.7.

That’s quite a leap of faith in free software. Four entire versions of a software package – ages and ages in the world of computers. And I couldn’t do an automatic upgrade either, because the menu item you’re supposed to use didn’t even exist yet in my ancient rickety old version.

So I took the great courage leap into the unknown, manually transferred all my content files over onto the ftp directory, edited the config file by hand, and jumped back on in.

And lo and behold – it works perfectly. Without a hitch. All kinds of new functionality, and fancy new controls behind the wheel, while all of my posts and images and your comments went seamlessly over to their new places.

I was so awed and inspired that I took a moment to make the following tribute, an amateurish if heartfelt bastardization of WordPress’s own logo. Gosh, I hope they don’t sue me…



Next

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Just for a lark I watched the 2007 action/scifi film “Next” over streaming internet. Not a very good movie, but then it wasn’t trying to be. All it retains from the Philip K. Dick story “The Golden Man” is the idea of a fully precognitive individual – one who can see all possible futures, and continually choose the outcome he likes best. My theory is that the filmmakers, realizing that the source story was unfilmable, considered it a point of pride not merely to dumb it down, but to make the dumbest, most ludicrous version they could think of.

Certainly anyone who watches this film, even if they enjoy it, will come away with that ooky feeling you get when you know your intelligence is being insulted. As if somebody wanted to tell about Albert Einstein, but decided to make it easier by changing “E = MC2” to “E = M + C”.

But I do give these filmmakers credit. An adaptation this over-the-top stupid could not be the result of mere hackery. My theory is that these are people possessed of great skill and finesse who worked hard to ensure that any idea or plot point that might conceivably be good or challenging or thought provoking was carefully excised from the final product. And that the bad ideas, the real howlers, the ones that leave you shaking your poor aching head and thinking “how the hell did this get in?” were lovingly produced and preserved on celluloid – to serve as an eternal testament to the perverse genius of these folks.

And just so that you realize they are doing all of this on purpose, they deliberately leave in one magnificent scene – a wonderful if shameless ripoff of “Groundhog Day” and “51 First Dates” – in which we watch the hero try every possible way to pick up a chick who is light years out of his league, until he hits on the one that will work.

But the idea of an individual who sees and selects from all possible futures is itself a good one, which deserves to be explored more often. I thought Stephen Spielberg and company did an excellent job with Sandra Morton’s character in the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report”. Rightly, her precog was portrayed as something vastly alien, with a psychology utterly unlike any we would recognize. And Morton is one of the few film actresses around with the talent to pull off that kind of role while maintaining the audience’s sympathy throughout.

In some sense, that entire film is built around the masterful scene in the mall when Tom Cruise and Morton are escaping the authorities together. That is not only the point in the film when you realize the awesome power she wields, but also the first time you are allowed to see reality from her bizarre perspective.

Coincidentally I am rereading “Watchmen” after many years, in anticipation of the forthcoming movie release. Alan Moore treats the character of Dr. Manhattan – an omniscient and omnipresent mutant who used to be human, but who now can see into the future and manipulate space and time – as a source of fascination as well as a kind of rueful comedy.

Dr. Manhattan is clearly nonplussed by the ordinary mortals he encounters, as they are nonplussed by him. Their intense drives, their earthly lusts and passions, the fact that things matter to them, these are concepts he has trouble holding onto. The only human challenge still left to him is to avoid drifting away altogether, to remember why anything might actually matter. In spite of his coldness, we care about the character because Alan Moore makes us see that this is a struggle against mortality – for Dr. Manhattan to lose his last vestige of humanness would be to lose all sense of meaning, which is a kind of death.

In contrast, the creators of “Next” have directed Nicholas Cage to do one of his hyperbolic personality riffs – but in this context it makes no sense at all. Cage makes a sincere attempt at a performance, but it’s all just silly. Why would this character show distress and fear about events that he knows will never happen? Why is he getting so worked up when the audience already knows he is never in danger? The whole thing is like watching a movie of somebody else playing a video game – when you already know the game was rigged.

VDay

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

There is an inherent contradiction built into Valentine’s Day. As Karl Marx might have said, it “contains the seeds of its own destruction.” Let me say at the outset – before going any further – that I don’t see this as a negative thing. Anything that wakes us up a little, that makes us think about the meanings behind our rites and rituals, is a good thing.

This evening I spent Valentine’s Day with the person I most wanted to spend it with. We went to the theatre – we chose something pointedly anti-romantic, as has been our practice for years – and we had a hell of a good time.

The contradiction behind Valentine’s Day comes down to the question: “Why do we need a special day – just one out of 365 – to celebrate our love for each other?” I do understand that the people at the Hallmark Card company need to eat. For them, and for those in their trade, this is simply business. The trick is to get lots of people into a frenzy, making them think that if they do not give that long-stemmed rose, cook that dinner, do that special something on Valentine’s Day, then their love is not true. I would like to point out, hopefully without offending anybody, that when we discuss such things, we are not really talking about love – we are talking about commerce.

I am all for anything that boosts the economy, particularly in these fiscally bleak times. But I would like to humbly suggest that there are deeper truths here. We are human, and we need to feel a connection with each other. We need to love, and we need to be loved. Why single out only one day of the year for this important aspect of our lives?

Think about the things you plan for Valentine’s Day – the home-cooked dinner, the flowers, the perfect little surprise gift wrapped in shiny gold paper. Why attach those things to a single day? Why not make them the very fabric of your daily life? You have nothing to lose, fellow humans, but your cynicism.

I resolved at some point to treat every day as Valentine’s Day. I wake up in the morning, think of the person I love, and I say to myself “Now what cool new surprise can I cook up today to celebrate the way I feel about this?”

And so for me, yes, Valentine’s Day is a bit of a joke – the notion that all these people suddenly wake up for one day and think they have 24 hours to express their love for each other. And it is the strangeness of that notion which reminds me that every day is Valentine’s Day. If you love somebody, with all your heart and soul, don’t hold back, don’t wait. Give them the crazy little gift today – whatever day of the year it may be – cook them that home-cooked dinner, put your soul on the line for them.

You won’t be sorry.

Harmonium

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Yesterday Abraham Lincoln was crowded out of this space by the little voyage of exploration I took with Charles Darwin and the beagle. Remarkably, both Mr. Darwin and old Honest Abe were born on the same day – 200 years ago yesterday. The similarities are almost too obvious to bear repeating. Each was the major catalyst for a fundamental shift in societal perception – shifts that neither man lived to see completed.

But Lincoln has an entirely different meaning for me, thanks to Leon Harmon of Bell Laboratories, and a series of experiments he did in 1973. In November 1973 the following image was published by Harmon in Scientific American, one of the illustrations for an article entitled “The Recognition of Faces”:



My first encounter with this image had a profound effect on my perception of the world. Until I came upon this article, I had – like most people – assumed that the things I see with my eyes are simply a reflection of the universe around me. I already understood that we interpret reality with our eyes and brains. But I hadn’t yet understood the extent to which we create the reality we see.

Harmon’s highly reduced image of Lincoln – scanned and downsampled from a five dollar bill – blew away some polite fictions about “seeing”. Clearly the image you behold is nothing like Abraham Lincoln in any real-world sense. It is, in fact, just a jumble of little gray squares – 14×18 little gray squares to be precise. If you didn’t have the image right in front of you back in 1973 – if you had never seen anything like this – and somebody had told you a face could be recognized by a 14×18 pixel grid, you would probably have dismissed such an outlandish claim outright.

But partly because of Leon Harmon and his visual experiments, we now understand that much of what we perceive is actually a kind of fiction: We don’t see Abraham Lincoln because he looks like Abrahalm Lincoln. We see Abraham Lincoln because we know what Abraham Lincoln looks like. The distinction is subtle, but fundamental.

This need to come to terms with our own inescapable subjectivity, our human tendency to continually make up reality as we go along – even as we seek to better understand the Universe through our science – was one of the great themes of the 2oth century, perhaps the major way in which that century parted ways with the certainties of the 1800s.

As usual, the artists got it right first. Even before the century changed, Realism was followed by Impressionism, and then Expressionism. By 1900 the scientists were starting to catch up. Newton gave way to Einstein, the outcome of quantum experiments were seen to depend upon the observer (that would be us), Freud made everyone conscious of the Unconscious, and all of the Victorian age pieties were suddenly breaking down at once.

And this progression – this continuing evolution in cultural perception – is why Harmon’s image of Lincoln is so important. It was an early example of an equivalent shift from the 20th century to the 21st. We had all learned the lessons of Einstein and Freud – that reality itself is malleable, that our own point of view as observer is an irreduceable part of the equation.

What we did not yet understand was that bandwidth itself is fungeable.

In the 21st century, as the information economy has gone from one of scarcity to one of abundance, information itself is no longer what it was. Everything has turned into Harmon’s portrait of Lincoln. A single well timed or mis-timed statement can trump all of the fine political speeches in the world. The tiny screen of an iPhone is more attractive than the highest of high definition TV. The substandard sound of MP3 has taken over, pushing aside far higher quality audio formats for all but a few die-hards.

The huge onslaught of information has turned everyone into a full-time spam filter. Everything has come down to finding the direct wire between what is out there and what is already inside our heads. Mere facts don’t seem to be enough – there needs to be a sympathetic vibe between the 14×18 pixel version of a thing and the similarly low-res homunculus within our brains that waits to resonate in response to a matching signal.

McLuhan had it only partly right. It’s not exactly that the medium is the message, but rather that the bandwidth is what it can be reduced to. Leon Harmon showed us a curiously redacted image and dared us to admit the truth – that we already knew what the images are, because each of us carries them around inside our heads. Freedom is now the right to apply your own information filter.

All of this is a far cry from the dreams of our nation’s founding fathers. If Abe Lincoln were around today to see what his fine 19th century notions of individual rights and personal liberty have evolved into 150 years later, I suspect he would be astonished. And more than a little confused.

Beagles

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. You’ve probably read a lot of wonderful things about him in the days leading up to today. Darwin was one of those people who looked around at what he saw in the world – honestly, carefully, and with no preconceived bias – and managed to figure out the true nature of things, how cause and effect actually works in the evolution of species – including ours.

He managed to do this even though the key facts he would have needed to understand the mechanism of sexual selection and recombination were not yet available – Gregor Mendel did the work required for that somewhat later. Which makes Darwin’s achievement even more remarkable.

But my own personal history of appreciation of Darwin’s work is somewhat skewed by the fact that when I first learned about it, as a child, I glommed onto the name of the ship he was sailing on for five years while he made his most important discoveries: the HMS Beagle.

And so, in my child’s mind, I always associated Charles Darwin with Snoopy, that intrepid beagle from the Peanuts comic strip.

It’s not really much of a stretch, when you think about it. Of all the Peanuts characters, Snoopy was the explorer, the discoverer of new worlds. While Charlie Brown was consumed with self-doubt and existential angst, Linus assumed the inward looking gaze of a dreamy Aristotalian philosopher, Lucy focused entirely on her own unthinking arrogance, and Schroeder threw all his energy into expressing his music, Snoopy was the only one who looked at the world around him with a clear and unbiased vision, his eyes wide open.

Perhaps this was because Snoopy was a dog – free from the tyranny of childhood’s social pressures. While the other characters worried about girls or boys or about fitting in, Snoopy was engaged in a dance with the Universe. I suspect that this power to be free within his own mind was the reason he became the most popular Peanuts character.

And it also happened that my childhood occurred in an odd time in our culture. When I was a child young people were in the midst of rebellion. They felt betrayed that the grown-up guys in the suits – the “smartest guys in the room” – had rationalized our nation into an unwinnable war that eventually blew up into a tragic quagmire (sound familiar?). To young people of that time, assuming a posture of holy innocence was the only proper response. In the words of Joni Mitchell: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

And so as I grew up I experienced a contradiction. I respected evidence – looking at cause and effect without preconceived prejudice, and I also respected the ethical convictions of young adults who protested a misbegotten war. But an odd thing was happening. The very tools of truth had become associated with the discredited Military Industrial Complex. And so young people started to embrace pseudo-science – EST, crystals, Toth pyramids, and all manner of beliefs that had much of the form of science, but none of its focus on rigorous thinking or cause-and-effect.

The discredited “establishment” had somehow tainted science itself, and so I found my loyalties caught between two worlds – two different notions of truth – that were drifting tragically apart.

And yet everyone – whatever their view on reality – embraced Snoopy and his wide-eyed dance of discovery through the Universe. Even that flagship of big-government high technology – NASA and its mission to the moon – associated itself with Snoopy. One of the Apollo 10 craft was named “Snoopy”, and to this day NASA gives out “Silver Snoopy” awards to exemplary employees.

Truth – the objective truth that comes from looking at the Universe with objectivity – is powerful, and therefore it is both wondrous and dangerous. Nobody fights a cholera epidemic by wishful thinking or made-up pseudo-science, but neither to daydreamers and fantasists make atomic bombs. Science can be a potent tool for either great good or great harm.

To this day, I see the connection between Charles Darwin and Snoopy, two of my heroes. One was a great genius and the other a great symbol of exploration – separated by an ocean and 150 years – and yet they shared a belief in exploration, in the nobility of looking out into the world and trying to understand what is around you.

Exploration and an honest striving to understand the world around us – what could be better than that? I vote for riding with the beagle.

Perfect theatre

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Tonight we saw the revival of David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow” at the Barrymore Theatre, starring William H. Macy, Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss, directed by Neil Pepe. And it was perfect.

Let me say at the outset that Mamet is not for everyone. There is not a trace of sentimentality on this stage. The psychology is fast-paced, take-no-prisoners and completely feral. The language is, quite frankly, filthy. But in a Mamet play, every single word counts – absolutely every moment contributes to the total. It’s an opportunity for the right cast and director to make a thing of great beauty.

And this was the right cast and director. From the very first moment, the play grabs you. The actors are on fire, relishing the fantastic, rhythmically potent lines – a kind of obscene poetry unique to Mamet, the layered high-wire personalities, the bravura pyrotechnics of characters who have spent their lives making so many compromising deals with themselves that they wouldn’t know truth if it knocked them down with a baseball bat. These characters are clever and funny – very funny – but in a fierce way that takes your breath away.

The play just builds and builds, establishing a sly premise, adding to it, using the character’s own flaws to placing them on a head-on collision course, with the rest of their lives as the stakes. And it all comes to a head in a showdown scene that has the entire audience completely gripped. A scene in which absolutely everything is laid on the line.

And then, after all of the verbal pyrotechnics, a single surprising (but perfectly consistent) line of dialog is uttered, and in that one moment everything realigns and resolves. The carefully placed cogs and wheels of Mamet’s drama all line up, things click, and all of the knots of conflict magically disappear. All in a single moment. And because the entire thing has been so expertly written, directed and played, the audience experiences this moment of revelation in all of its power and dramatic beauty.

If there is any chance at all that you can get yourself to New York to see this production while it is still running, I suggest you do so forthwith. This is why theatre is essential.

Dark spaces, filled with light

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

One of the things I love about living in New York is the endless opportunity to wander into something unexpected. Which happened twice in one evening this week. First I went to see Dark Space, an indescribably good tale of metamorphosis told with puppets, bravura acting and uncommon wit. It’s one of those rare perfectly realized amalgams of art piece and theatre, the kind of thing you always hope you will see in odd offbeat performance spaces, but almost never do.

Afterward I tried to describe the experience of seeing it to one of its creators, Kate Brehm. The best I could come up with was: “It’s was like watching David Cronenberg become genetically transformed into Basil Twist.” Actually, I think that’s an accurate description – but no substitute for seeing it happen right before your eyes.

Afterward we went for drinks to the Algonquin Hotel, only a few blocks away – the wonderfully storied place where Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and the rest of the Round Table held court all those years ago. On this particular night there was open-mike singing. Yet another magical thing about New York – nearly everyone who got up to sing was very, very good. Or, to put it more accurately, they were great – great on a professional level. These are clearly people in the biz – men and women who have had years of experience with Broadway or off-Broadway. And what they do on a night off is show up in the Algonquin lounge and belt one out – comedy numbers, torch songs, classic blues, light and frothy show tunes, or full-on coloratura opera. Just for fun.

And I realized that in one evening I had run the gamut – from the most avant garde conception of theatre to the most meat-and-potatoes Broadway bedazzlement. And absolutely none of it was being done for money – only for the sheer love of being in New York, of putting on an evening of great theatre, and of being good enough to knock it clear out of the ballpark.

Busted

Monday, February 9th, 2009

The intrepid team of the Australian TV show “MythBusters” works tirelessly to test out urban myths and folk legends in the real world, including such burning questions as whether downing Pop Rocks with cola can cause your stomach to explode, or whether a needle can, in fact, be found in a haystack.

I had always assumed that the intrepid scientists of this show were always on the side of truth. That is, I thought so until the day I learned, to my sorrow, that even they are fallable. And it’s all my mother’s fault.

One day the show was testing out the “five second rule” – so beloved by parents of small children – that if you pick food up off the floor within five seconds, it will still be ok to eat. The show’s scientists tested this rule by dropping food at various places throughout a house, waiting between two and six seconds to pick it up, and then seeing whether there was any significant difference in bacterial growth on the food.

They could find no measurable difference, and therefore they declared the five second rule to be a busted myth. End of story.

Except that it’s not the end of the story.

As it happens, I saw this episode sometime after I had listened to a well-reasoned exposition on this subject by my mom. She explained the logic behind the five second rule. The point is not how long you leave it on the floor – two seconds, or six seconds or twenty seconds – but whether, soon after having dropped the food, you pick it up and promptly eat it.

As opposed to, say, coming home from work or school in the afternoon, finding that cookie you had accidentally dropped on the floor in the morning, and deciding to pop it in your mouth anyway – an egregious violation of the five second rule.

What my mom explained to me was that the real point of the rule is not how long the food is on the floor, but whether you eat the food right away. Bacteria take time to grow. Dropping food on the floor will likely expose it to a small amount of bacteria. If you eat the food right away, your body’s immunological defenses will easily overwhelm the few pesky microbes that have attached themselves to your snack.

But if you leave the food for any length of time, the bacteria will do what bacteria do best when presented with a tasty morsel – start to grow at an exponential rate. So if you pop that same food into your mouth some hours later, your immune system finds itself facing an entire army of microscopic invaders. Not a very good scenario for the home team.

One could make a strong argument in this case that for all of its efforts, the “MythBusters” team was investigating the wrong question. Rather than being busted, the five second rule simply needed to be properly understood.

And so I found myself questioning all of the “MythBusters” experiments. Could it be that these people have been asking the wrong questions on other occasions as well? Is it possible that a beloved TV show, one I had esteemed and looked upon, reverently, as a paragon of pure and disinterested science, was, in fact (gulp) mere entertainment?

Sigh.