Archive for July, 2009

Der Bingle

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I find it touching and rather sweet that Microsoft has named its new search engine after a beloved American singer. Bing Crosby is sometimes overlooked by newer generations, but his innovative vocal stylings on such classics as “Swinging on a Star” and “White Christmas” influenced Sinatra and many others, resulting in a cascade of musical influences that have inspired many in the biz, from Bono to Amy Winehouse. Until its introduction of “Bing”, which is quite an impressive piece of software btw, I hadn’t realized that Microsoft possessed such a high level of subtlety and sensitivity to our nation’s formative pop-cultural influences.

I hope they continue in the spirit of this lovely gesture to Der Bingle. Here are some modest suggestions, likewise drawn from the golden age of great crooners. In the spirit of Louie Armstrong, a technology to let you carry all your data with you, accessible from any browser, could be called “Satchmo”. After all, how better than to suggest that “the internet is the computer” is a winning strategy than by honoring the man who sang “That Lucky Old Sun”.

And rather than naming their new gesture based interaction system “Natal”, now that it is tantalizingly close to reality, perhaps they could honor the Chairman of the Board himself and call it “Ole Blue Eyes”. After all, Sinatra gave us such classics as “High Hopes”, “The World is in my Arms” and “I Believe”.

Even Vista might be resurrected and renamed “Dean”, after Dean Martin, the great mid-century vocalist who gave us such classics as “You’re Breaking my Heart”, “Just One More Chance” and “Have a Little Sympathy”. And for distributed computing over the internet, why not rebrand the rather overworked phrase “Cloud Computing” in a way that would truly set Microsoft apart from certain highly touted competitors? They could call it “The Velvet Fog”, in honor of Mel Tormé. On the other hand, Mr. Tormé was known for singing “Cast your Fate to the Wind” and “Perfidia”, so that might not really be sending the right message.

But one could argue that naming too many product offerings after singers now long dead is a risky value proposition. Memories are short, and Microsoft is already taking a substantial risk with its brave new product title, given that Bing Crosby passed from this mortal coil in 1977 – long before many of today’s users of internet search were even born. So I would suggest that the company hedge its bets, by including at least one pop singer who is not long dead, but merely, say, freshly dead. Along those lines, perhaps they could introduce a utility that blocks unwanted ads from showing up on your desktop. It would be called, of course, “The King of Pop”.

The last Victorian

Monday, July 20th, 2009

We are so utterly immersed in our cyber-enhanced world that it can be hard to properly understand the context surrounding the historic event of forty years ago today, so thoroughly does our current world view skew our perception of the word “technology”. To put things in proper perspective, the total computational power involved in the Apollo mission to the Moon was far less than the computing power contained in your cell phone.

When JFK launched his grand challenge to put a man on the Moon and bring him safely back before the decade was out, not even five years had elapsed since the first simple integrated circuit had been demonstrated in a laboratory. Telephones did not have computers in them. Nor did cars, ovens, toys, hotel doors, stereos, or the myriad other objects in one’s daily life.

Yes, there was already a fantasy of a technological future – the Jetsons come to mind – but that was more of a physical fantasy than a cybernetic one. The coolest thing about the Jetsons was their flying car – a natural extension of post-war America’s extended love affair with the automobile, and a collective cultural desire that dates back to Henry Ford in 1908.

Similarly George Jetson’s robotic housekeeper Rosie was not portrayed as a marvel of artificial intelligence, but rather as a thinly disguised gloss on the 1950s TV character Hazel – a smart-alecky blue collar housekeeper engaged in perpetual affectionate class warfare with her boss, the upwardly mobile suburbanite George Baxter. The only thing that really distinguished Rosie from Hazel was the way she managed to zoom around the house while balancing on what looked like a single tiny roller skate. Again, a celebration of mechanical innovation, not cybernetic advancement.

In other words, the world of the 1960s was still focused on the physical world as the ultimate measure of technological advancement – buildings that were the highest ever, weapons more explosive than any ever built before, jet planes and submarines and automobiles that broke all previous speed records. The most celebrated superhero was still Superman – that master of the physical, celebrated for his unparalleled strength, speed, ability to fly, even X-ray vision. The technological focus of the 1960s was, in essential ways, an extension of the Victorian, with its trains running ever faster, huge steamships sailing across the globe, mighty cities built with ever newer and stronger materials and methods of manufacture – not to mention those X-rays (first discovered in 1875).

In an important way, that first footstep on the Moon was the paramount expression of the Victorian dream – a fantasy come true for anyone who grew up reading Jules Verne, H.G. Welles or Hugo Gernsback. Humans could truly say that they had passed the ultimate physical test – they had shown they could break the bonds that tied our species down to mother Earth.

But once having proved this, there was nowhere else to go. In a sense, the Moon landing was a death knell for such Victorian era dreams. What appeal could a mere train or jet plane or tall building hold for a species that had walked upon another heavenly body? What had been mere hopeful fantasy and speculation from the time of the ancient Greeks – and earlier – was now cold hard fact.

Sure, we could go on to Mars and beyond, but there was no longer any mystery as to whether such a feat was possible. Once human footsteps had touched the surface of the Moon, we knew in our heart of hearts that we could find a way to walk upon the planets.

And so in the four decades that have followed, our culture’s yearnings for technological transcendence have gradually turned 180o, from outward to inward. Our technological desire has focused less on extending the body, and more on extending the brain. When Neil Armstrong took his first step upon the Moon, forty years ago today, he became the last Victorian hero – the final iconic expression of a world now gone.

Headlines

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Today I noticed a small article in The New York Times. Glancing at the headline, I thought I saw “New Literary Prize in honor of Harry Potter”. Well, that seemed interesting. How often are prestigious literary awards created in honor of fictitious characters from juvenile literature?

When I looked more closely, I realized that the headline had actually said “New Literary Prize in honor of Harold Pinter”. Well, yes, that is considerably more consistent with the world as we know it. Yet by the same token, it is also far less interesting news.

I began to wonder in what sort of parallel universe a prestigious literary award would be named after J.K. Rowling’s intrepid boy wizard. It would, in a sense, be a world that had much in common with our own. For one thing, it would clearly contain Harry Potter, and most likely his friends Ron and Hermione. But it would also likely be a world with a distinctly different set of values and priorities. In other words, interestingly different.

There is a long tradition in science fiction of convergence theories of alternate universes. From Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” through to the recent “Star Trek” reboot (I wonder whether it is even possible to discuss J.J. Abrams’ recent film without using the word “reboot” at least once), universes that run in parallel with ours always seem to contain eerie coincidences of fact, even when they differ from ours in the fundamental rules of physics itself.

For example, according to Pullman, Cambridge University survives fundamental differences in the nature of humanity itself, while according to Abrams, every parallel universe apparently produces a certain intrepid starship crew with all of its members magically in place, whatever other calamitous events may befall the changed world around them.

The newspaper headline I had so carelessly misread got me to thinking that headlines might be a nice way to define such oddly parallel yet tellingly different alternate universes, worlds running alongside our own that resemble ours in the particulars but diverge in the fundamentals.

Imagine if tomorrow you were to wake up and read a headline along these lines: “Dolly Parton chooses new interim vice president.” What might that say about the world you had just woken up into?

I for one would be curious to find out.

Digital Bollywood

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Today a friend showed me a bit of the computer game “Pitch Black”. Although I had never played this game, I was surprised by how familiar it looked. Soon I realized that this was because the visual look of the game – the interiors, architecture, lighting, camera, even the shape of the doors and passageways, possessed the same dingy dystopian post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi motif that pervades Valve’s “Half Life”, Id Software’s “Quake” and similar games.

If you don’t play these games, they all look eerily alike. And yet if you do play them regularly, I suspect that this particular surface gloss is absolutely necessary – de rigeur. It’s what clues you in that you are in a first person shooter, and lets you know what to expect.

On a different scale, this is similar to the way we Americans initially perceive Bollywood films. For most of us, because we are not immersed in them, do not speak their visual language, they all seem the same to us. And yet the people for whom these films are made see none of that. The texture itself – the particulars of the costumes, the musical style, the dance moves – these are as invisible to the film’s intended audience as a four/four beat is to the fans at a rock concert.

These first pungent encounters with the strange texture of an unfamiliar medium are part of the fun of living in a multicultural world. As we gradually enter an age of global digital media, I wonder whether we will experience this feeling less and less – as genres from far-flung corners of the world eventually become everyday and familiar, or more and more, as the number of newly available genres begins to multiply and propagate.

Are we entering an age of a common media language, the way the bulk of popular music in our culture began to converge to rock and roll half a century ago, and the way most written communication now seems to be morphing from long form prose through Blogs toward 140 character tweets? Or are we fragmenting into a new Tower of Babel?

Darned if I know.

Just one thing

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Several years ago I was at one our extended family’s periodic gatherings. We were reminiscing about family members now long gone, and eventually the subject got around to my dad’s mom. Everybody had a different memory of her, and it seemed that most of the memories were quite different from mine.

My memories of grandma Helen, dating mostly from when I was between three and five years old, were mostly one of a delightful companion. She had one of those old apartments in the Bronx where all of the furniture is from another time, where everything looks and smells like something out of World War II or earlier. She was clearly always delighted to have me come and visit, during those times when my parents dropped me off for her to watch for the day, while they went off on some errand or another.

There were all kinds of wonderful things to play with in grandma’s apartment – old boxes with buttons and odd ornaments, framed paintings stacked up in the closet, old telephones, photos of mysterious people in little hinged cameo cases, a genuine miniature painted commemorative San Francisco trolley. Endless things and places for an intrepid little boy to explore. And through it all, grandma would bring me treats – one time it would be rugallah from the local bakery, another time it would be yummy Mallomars.

The rest of the family apparently did not share my remembered enthusiasm. Those who had been older than five when she was around recalled a very difficult and combative woman, obstinate and contrary, who consistently made life difficult for everyone around her. It’s as though we were talking about different people entirely.

And yet she clearly had a hold on everyone in the family. When I happened to mention that she had once given me a piece of advice, the entire group instantly became hushed. What I said, to be precise, was that grandma Helen had once told me there was just one thing I should always remember to do – advice that I had unfailingly followed ever since.

After what seemed like a very long and awed silence, one of my aunts finally asked what it was that grandma Helen had told me all those years ago. Everyone leaned in to hear what I had to say on the subject.

Feeling somewhat puzzled at all the fuss, yet rather proud to be the keeper of arcane family knowledge, I explained: “She told me that a young man should always remember, every day, to wash his face.”

Nike

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Today I got a tour of Nike – in Beaverton, Oregon (near Portland). It’s quite the place. They have lakes and sports clubs and restaurants for their employees, Japanese gardens for contemplation, tennis courts, running tracks and swimming pools for exercise, as well as a regulation sized soccer field right in the middle of the artfully constructed rolling hills of this vast wooded campus. In the seemingly unending outdoor parking lot, we parked right next to a spot that is permanently reserved for Michael Jordan (he wasn’t there). Being in the Nike campus is a little like being in a dream world. You can tell that the employees all feel very well taken care of – I suspect the company has extremely high job retention.

There is also a huge company store where employees (and some of us visitors) can buy anything Nike offers at far below retail prices. Walking around this giant emporium, I was not surprised to notice that the enormous array of items on sale – shoes and socks and footballs (both American and European) and jackets and golf clubs and boxers and sweatshirts and tennis rackets and just about anything else sports-related that you can imagine – had exactly one thing in common: They all displayed the famous Nike swoosh symbol. Now, it’s important to understand that Nike doesn’t actually make most of this stuff (although in one of the more secretive buildings on campus they do some impressive technical development) – they have people in China to actually make the shoes. So what exactly is going on here?

I think the answer lies precisely in this sense one gets, while walking around this campus, of being in the midst of a lovely dream. What Nike offers their customers is indeed a dream – the dream of being like Tiger Woods, or Mia Hamm, or Lance Armstrong. It’s a good dream, one that gets kids to exercise, to learn self-mastery, to try to be the best they can be And of course it’s also a business, a phenomenally successful business. Every time you buy something at a Nike store your body becomes a highly visible sales platform for the Nike brand. There is an endless spiral of positive reinforcement between the brand, the customers who wear it, and the sports stars who are handsomely paid to lend their illustrious names and faces to the entire endeavor.

It’s not about making clothes – an activity that is outsourced to other parts of the world where labor costs are far lower. Rather, it’s about making money by giving people a way to define themselves, to strive to become a more ideal version of themselves, through identification with their cultural heroes.

There are worse ways to make a living.

In Seattle

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Today was a beautiful day in Seattle, where I am visiting all too briefly. The more often I visit here from NY, the more I become aware that I am – albeit in a subtle way – a visitor from a somewhat alien culture. I start to see myself through the eyes of my friends and colleagues. They and I have much in common, and yet we differ in so many ways, subtle yet systematic, that bind me to my fellow New Yorkers.

There is a love of the outdoors here, a premium on natural dress and a kind of “green” way of being, which belies the fact that people drive big cars to get anywhere.

Everything here must go into the correct recycle bin, apparently on pain of death (although I would not dare to test this theory, for fear of an untimely demise), and there is a kind of laid back attitude that is distinctly un-Manhattan.

It’s not that either way of being is right or wrong, and it’s fun to slip into another way of being for a few days. I’ve enjoy my time here, and I adore Seattle, to see my casual friends with their wonderful brown hiking boots, their easy and slow style of talking, their unhurried way of strolling and driving about their vast wooded world.

But I must confess that some part of me is already looking back to being home again, to that cramped fast-moving world of people piled upon people, of a million different cultures all zooming past each other at lightning speed, of everyone wearing black and feeling fabulous to be part of something so fast moving and outrageous and crazy as New York.

Strange loop

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Whenever I set down to write something here I am aware that there is a kind of zooming process at work, a subject lens that moves in and out. Sometimes this lens pulls out to take in the Universe, metaphysical questions and the like, while at other times it hovers around some middle scale – discussions of politics or social conflicts. At still other times – as in yesterday’s post – my lens zooms all the way in to discuss something highly personal.

But I’ve noticed a funny thing. The posts that are the most tightly focused, personal and idiosyncratic in scope, are often the ones that receive the greatest response from readers. There seems to be a kind of strange loop at work here, a meeting of polar opposites of scale. The most highly personal issues, the expression of thoughts that I grapple with alone in my heart, often seem to be, paradoxically, the most universal and highly resonant.

Perhaps this is what binds us together most tightly as humans, the quality that allows us to understand and empathize with each other in our respective separate (and often lonely) selves. The more personal things get, and the more deeply we burrow into our own individual hearts, the more universally we forge the really important connections with each other.

A strange loop indeed.

On a lake

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Today, on a beautiful evening boat cruise on a lake, under a flawless night sky, I was aware of the presence of someone I’ve been successfully avoiding for years. There are some people (fortunately only a few) who come into your life and proceed to sow a path of utter destruction, dismantling your dearest friendships, your professional relationships, the trust between you and others, wreaking untold havok in that place deep within yourself that anchors you, that tells you you are safe.

To encounter such a person some years later, in an unexpected place, is a shock. I found myself carefully monitoring the situation, some part of me going into emergency survival mode. I did not wish any sort of confrontation, or even encounter. My goal was to get through the evening as though this Grendel were not there.

To a large degree I succeeded. The presence of a few good friends helped considerably. At the end of the evening the boat docked and I maneuvered silently past my nemesis, realizing that I had survived, that the circumstances that had allowed this person to cause such horror in my life no longer pertained, that I was relatively safe.

Of course we are never completely safe. We each, from time to time, meet our nemesis, someone capable of tearing down the things we most care about. But we move on, watchful, wary, until one day we encounter them again, perhaps under a night sky on a lake, and we observe, with a kind of watchful relief, that their dark power seems at last to be gone.

Up a mountain

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

Today I walked up a mountain. Not a very big mountain – only about three thousand feed high – but still, a mountain just the same. It was with friends, people I really like and see not nearly often enough, and the climb itself, both upwards and downwards, was the context for delightful conversation on a myriad of topics.

It’s marvelous the way a walk up a mountain, somewhat strenuous and sustained exercise, can provide a context for the most delightful conversations. Far more inspiring than merely sitting around for several hours. It’s as though our bodies, moving through space and time, engaged in a form of hard-won progress through the world, spurs our minds to journey as well.

Perhaps in ancient times, when our ancestors were nomadic by necessity, roaming the world as a way of life, conversation arose as a way for a tribe to bond in its journeys. We still maintain these pleasurable instincts even when not moving. And yet there is something about walking and talking, about the sheer pleasure of sustained conversation during sustained activity, that speaks to some deep ancestral call within.