Archive for June, 2010

Father’s Day at 100

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the celebration of Father’s Day in America. Father’s Day in this country was first celebrated in Spokane Washington in 2010, on the third Sunday in June, although it took another sixty two years for the U.S. Government to officially declare it as an annual event.

I suspect that official recognition took so long because the political cost was too high until the change in views of the roles of men and women that came to a head during the late sixties and early seventies. In the decades prior to the sixties, reactions to the proposal often ranged from laughter to derision.

We now live in a world where it is understood that fathers can be an important part of their children’s everyday lives. But it wasn’t all that long ago — not even half a century — when the conventional wisdom was that the gender roles were set in stone: mothers raise the children and fathers bring in the money to support them.

People generally think of “feminism” as a movement that centers around women, including such issues as equal pay for equal work, access to birth control and freedom from sexual harassment. But the history of Father’s Day is a testament to the fact that this is an incomplete view.

Thanks to the changes wrought by the feminist moment, we now take it for granted that men too have the right to spend quality time with their children. If a man wants to take time off to take care of his newborn child, people no longer call him crazy, and his continued employment is no longer threatened.

The official recognition of Father’s Day into perpetuity was signed into law not by some liberal crusader, but by Richard M. Nixon, who happened to be president at the historical moment when society finally accepted men as valid caretakers of their own children.

But who knows? Maybe it had to be Nixon. In the words of the old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.”


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, scene 2

Shadows of the moon

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

These fragile vessels are gone away too soon
Oh do not ask me why

What are you and I, but shadows of the moon
That dance under the sky?

These moments we have, like raindrops in your hand
Which sparkle for a day

Are gentle dreams of beauty we barely understand
But dreams must fade away

From eternity we purchase a thimbleful of years
And oh, how high the price

Yet every moment, though paid for with our tears,
Is worth the sacrifice


Friday, June 18th, 2010

My good friend Andy and I recently found ourselves on the subject of words that refer to themselves. I first recall encountering such a word when I was about twelve years old. Leafing through Webster’s Dictionary, I came upon the wonderful word “logomachy”. It’s the sort of word you could imagine people fighting over, with one person saying “oh, there is no such word”, and someone else insisting that the word indeed exists. Eventually of course they resort to looking it up, only to encounter this definition:

Pronunciation: \lō-ˈgä-mə-kē\
Function: noun
Etymology: Greek logomachia, from log- + machesthai to fight
Date: 1569
1 : a dispute over or about words

For the person who had gallantly defended this word’s existence, could victory possibly be more sweet?

There are plenty of examples in literature of such metonymic word usage. From Roald Dahl’s delightfully sly use of the word “epexegetically” in his wonderful short story “The Great Grammatizator”, which I I talked about a while back, to the decision by the music group REM to name one of their albums “Eponymous” — possibly the most clever album title in the history of pop music.

Yet, as my friend Andy and I discussed, there are words that let you down. “Palindrome” is, sadly, not a palindrome. And no anagrams have yet been found for “anagram”. “Onomatopoeia” is not onomatopoetic, except by the most tortured interpretation of that word.

And so it is a delight when one comes upon words that are satisfyingly self-referential. “Noun” and “adjective” work as examples of themselves, although “verb” does not. The word “short” is self-descriptive, in a way that “miniscule” and “monosyllabic” are not.

The word “grandiloquent” is, well, grandiloquent. And I’ve always particularly adored the word “gargantuan”. Just saying it out loud makes the whole world seem somehow roomier (go ahead, try it). As opposed to the word “cramped”, a word that is all too self-descriptive.

“Mellifluous” describes itself rather perfectly. As do “abstruse”, “recondite” and “sesquipedalian”, although these last three are somewhat overly lexiphanic (you could look it up).

Word to the max.


Thursday, June 17th, 2010

When we think of Beethoven, we don’t generally think of him as being one particular age. The same is true for Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, William Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson. The creative output of those wonderful geniuses did not coincide with one particular point in their lives, but rather was produced over a range of ages.

In this way, such artists have escaped the tyranny of age discrimination, and society’s odd views about age in general. They have instead been celebrated for their talent, for possession of a singular voice, for the output of a magnificent mind.

This is not the case for actors. Without even thinking about it, we make a clear distinction between the young Bette Davis and the older one, or the Nicholson of “Five Easy Pieces” and of “About Schmidt”. There is a vast gulf in our minds between Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” and in “A Woman Called Golda”. We can’t help it — age discrimination is deeply indoctrinated into us, and we cannot simply wish it away.

Yet this will change. Some time in the next twenty years — perhaps sooner — all movie production will go entirely digital. The person you see up on the screen will be a simulcrum, an artificial person digitally puppeteered by its real counterpart. And at that point actors will be able to be whatever age is most convenient. Only talent and commitment will matter, not mere accidents of chronology. An actor of twenty five will easily be able to portray himself or herself at the age of seventy five, and vice versa.

In that historical moment, the actor will become as ageless as the painter, the sculptor, the playwright and the poet.


Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Today, as many of you know, is Bloomsday. On this day every year James Joyce aficionados everywhere re-enact the fictitious June 16 1904 walkabout through Dublin taken by Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s “Ulysses”. It is a glorious tradition, with just the right degree of nuttiness to hold our attention. Any such celebration needs to calibrate its insanity carefully, for as Saint-Gaudens once said: “As garlic is to food, insanity is to art.”

Which is why I am puzzled as to why all famous works of narrative fiction do not inspire similar celebrations. Where are the fans retracing Holden Caulfield’s journey around Manhattan? Why do we not see hordes of young women in little black dresses dining at Tiffany’s at 5am each morning? And why is nobody getting on a raft to follow the path laid down by Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim?

Wouldn’t it be fun to recreate the journey to the heart of darkness that Joseph Conrad described so vividly — or at least its cinematic imitation by Francis Ford Coppola? And why aren’t football fans everywhere revisiting that Longest Yard? I am referring of course to the real version from 1974, not whatever the hell Adam Sandler thought he was doing in 2005.

Who wouldn’t want to travel from Paris to Marseille, across the Mediterranean Sea to Oran, Algeria, then across French Morocco to Casablanca, only to nobly give up one’s exit visa to Lisbon and the New World? I know I would. If you’re going to hand off the woman you love to some other guy just to show her how much you love her, Rick Blaine was way more practical about it than, say, Sidney Carlton.

If you see what I mean.

There are limits, to be sure. I can see why there is no annual day of re-enactment of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey”. The expense alone would be astronomical. And I am really glad nobody is trying to re-enact the final scene of “Dr. Strangelove”. At least, I hope they’re not.

Pun play

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

I’ve been wondering whether it would be possible to write a play in which every line of dialog contains at least one pun. I don’t mean that the characters would deliberately be punning. In fact, they’d have no idea any of this is happening. Rather, as they play out their scenes, controversies, resolutions, shifts in power and allegiance, they would just happen to say things in puns.

The audience would experience such a play on two completely different levels. The pun or puns contained in each line of dialog would be a sort of music dancing around the lyrics of the play. One could imagine dialog along these lines:

Character 1: I never thought you’d hatch such a bold scheme.
Character 2: Yes, I’ve decided to come out of my shell.
Character 1: I’m so glad. You’ve always been a good egg.

You get the idea. I suspect the above example is too brazen — you’d need to be more subtle about it. If it’s done right, the resulting play might be very satisfying, or it might be unbearably awful. Many members of the audience might not even realize that there was a second “pun” labor to the proceedings.

It’s impossible to say at this point just how such a mad scheme would come across. But it would certainly be interesting to try.

Trees 3

Monday, June 14th, 2010

I had always thought of photosynthesis in a fairly simple way: A plant acts as a factory for converting water and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen. The plant then converts that glucose into cellulose, starches, and all that other good stuff we get from plants. But now that I needed to know where the mass of cellulose comes from, I had to look more closely at how this factory works.

The weight ratio between single atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are (more or less) 12 to 1 to 16, respectively. So, for example, in a molecule of water (H2O), almost all of the weight comes from the oxygen. If you’re trying to figure out where the weight comes from in tree cellulose, you can almost ignore the hydrogen — it just doesn’t weigh very much. So the real question is: When H2O and CO2 combine to make C6H12O6 (glucose), does the oxygen come more from the water, or from the carbon dioxide?

Well, it turns out that a plant is actually two factories. The first factory is in the business of converting photons (which provide energy) and water into hydrogen. All living things have molecules called ADP, which act as batteries. When sunlight hits its leaves, a plant charges up these batteries, pulling the hydrogen out of the water, and adding it to the ADP, which then turns into another molecule called ATP.

Basically, ADP is a microscopic uncharged solar cell, and ATP is the same solar cell, all charged up.

While this first factory needs to be bathed in sunlight (or some other light source), the second factory doesn’t need any light at all. This second factory takes in ATP (those already-charged batteries) and carbon dioxide. From the ATP it gets those charged up hydrogen atoms, and combines them with the carbon dioxide. One of the two oxygen atoms in each CO2 molecule is released into the atmosphere, and the other one is used to make glucose — C6H12O6.

So it turns out that none of the oxygen from the water actually gets used to make glucose (and therefore cellulose) — the glucose contains only the oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

When you add up the numbers, it turns out that only about six percent of the weight of wood cellulose (the hydrogen) comes from the roots — the other ninety four percent of that mass comes from carbon dioxide.

Which means that the wood of even the most massive tree comes almost entirely from pure air.

Trees 2

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

All of us already knew the basics when we started our dinner conversation about where trees get their huge mass of cellulose. In particular, we knew that water comes up through the roots, and carbon dioxide comes in through the leaves. Photosynthesis uses these ingredients, together with energy from light, to make the simple sugar glucose — which the tree can then further process to make cellulose and other carbohydrates.

Because there is more oxygen in water and carbon dioxide than there is in glucose, photosynthesis has the nice side effect of releasing oxygen into the air (which is quite fortunate for those of us who like to breath the stuff).

We even all knew the formulas when we started talking:

      Water + Carbon Dioxide → Glucose + Oxygen

Or to be more precise:

      H2O + CO2 → C6H12O6 + O2

You’ve probably already noticed that there are a lot more atoms on the right side of that equation than on the left side. That’s why it actually takes six water molecules and six carbon dioxide molecules to produce a single molecule of glucose:

      6 H2O + 6 CO2 → C6H12O6 + 6 O2

Now everything adds up: Both sides of the equation have 12 hydrogen atoms, 18 oxygen atoms and 6 carbon atoms.

But now we were stumped. Clearly all of the carbon comes from the air, and all of the hydrogen comes from the ground water pulled in by the roots. But what about the oxygen? Does that come from the air, from the water, or some combination? Until we answer that question, we can’t really say how much of a tree’s cellulose mass comes from the air, and how much comes from ground water.

Maybe all of the oxygen comes from the water, and maybe all of the oxygen comes from the air, or maybe it’s some mixture of these. How can we definitely answer this?

More tomorrow.


Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Once again I am putting “Attic” temporarily on hiatus, as we ponder the dualism between dream and reality, the eternal struggle for meaning and connection, and why demons so often come in funny colors. Our intrepid friends will be back soon.

Meanwhile, I had an actual non-trivial discussion today about where a tree trunk comes from. In particular, when a tree grows, where does all that huge mass of cellulose in its trunk come from?

We all know that tree trunks are huge, massive things — think of the Amazon rainforest. But the vast weight of cellulose in their trunks comes from the most unlikely of places.

It’s an interesting question partly because so many people get it totally wrong, giving answers like “it comes from the soil”, or “sucked up from the roots”. It’s pretty easy to show that those answers are incorrect, but it’s somewhat trickier to work out the right answer in detail.

This is such an intriguing question that I’m going to hold off giving an answer until tomorrow, to give readers time to think about it.


Friday, June 11th, 2010

As part of the research in our Games for Learning Institute my colleague Jan Plass and I have been batting around ideas for making games that do a good job of keeping track of what’s going on inside the mind of the player. The general idea is that as we create learning games, we want to be able to know whether the player is actually “getting it”, or is just clicking around randomly.

To this end, we’re looking at games that ask the player to understand and apply some kind of rule. To get some practice in making these sorts of games, we borrowed ideas from the wonderful card game Set, and combined them with other games like Bejeweled, to create various games where the player needs to understand and apply a rule.

This week I threw together a rough prototype. Since it combines ideas from the games Set and Bejeweled, I call it “Beset”. The game is probably going to change and get refined a lot, but this preliminary sketch is what I have so far.

On the screen you see 81 cards. Any given card can have one, two or three symbols, three possible shapes, three possible colors, and three possible textures. So, just like in the game of Set, there are 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 = 81 unique cards. The basic idea of the game is that you need to pick three cards that match a rule that’s shown at the top of the screen.

This rule will say that all three cards need to have either the same or all different (1) number of symbols, (2) symbol shape, (3) symbol color, and (4) symbol texture. For each of these four properties, the rule will either say the three cards need to be all the same or all different.

Whenever you successfully apply the rule to match three cards, smiley faces appear over those three cards — and then the rule changes. The goal is to get smiley faces over all 81 cards.

Toward the end of the game, when there are only a few cards left in play, it’s possible to get stuck with cards that don’t match any rule. For that reason I added a “slide smiley face over” feature. You can always slide a smiley face one square up, down, left or right, to bring a card back into play.

I know it sounds a little complicated, but it all makes sense once you start playing. You can try it HERE.

I’d love to know what people think.

Hint: for the first round, try clicking on the three cards that have green striped ovals.