Memorable month

There are months that just seem to glide by, without containing any events of consequence. And then there are months that grab you by the collar, drag you off into a corner, beat you about the head and neck and scream “remember me, damn you!”

I’m not talking about whether a month has been good or bad, only whether it has been memorable. Looking back over this month, I would definitely have to say it has been one of those drag-you-off-into-a-corner kinds of month.

I am not complaining, rather more feeling amused. After all, this is a February we’re talking about — and therefore about as short as a month can be, going by the calendar. We’re not even talking leap month here. Yet for me the last four weeks have been crammed chock full of event and consequence, about as full as as any four weeks can be.

I don’t know whether I would want every month to be so intense. Nonetheless it is interesting, every once in a while, to go through one of these.

Although I do very much hope March will turn out to be more peaceful.

And maybe shorter. 🙂


I am writing this just before seeing the 83rd annual Academy Awards. The large field of best picture nominations this year really brings home something odd about the entire endeavor — the idea that there can be a “best” movie in a highly diverse field of high quality movies.

Clearly this is something people want. After all, the Academy has parlayed this desire for one film to triumph into arguably the most potent commercial brand on the planet. People seem to hunger for this sort of competition. Perhaps this particular kind of struggle and outcome puts order into our lives, satisfying some deep primal urge to bring things to some kind of resolution.

Even if it is, in a case like this, a fairly arbitrary resolution. What does it mean to compare a film like “The Social Network” with a film like “The King’s Speech”? In what sense can either of these excellent examples of collective commercial craftsmanship be said to be better than the other?

And yet we rank them, and we will continue to do so. Although I suspect that this entire exhilarating yet more than slightly silly enterprise doesn’t reveal nearly as much about the nature of these movies as it does about the nature of ourselves.

The courage to be funny

On a whim, last night I rewatched the 1968 musical film “Funny Girl”, a highly revisionist take on the great vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice. In the title role, the young Barbra Streisand won that year’s Academy Award for best actress.

Watching the film now, I was struck by something odd. While Streisand’s singing is spectacular (as always), and she is completely adorable, she’s not very funny. I mean, she’s sort of funny, but not very funny. And this in a role where she is playing a legendary comedienne.

The problem couldn’t be due to a shift in culture in the last four decades. After all, the Marx Brothers are every bit as funny now as they were almost 80 years ago. So I went to YouTube and watched every clip I could find of the actual Fanny Brice, mostly from the 1930s. And man is she funny! Her performances are completely over the top, borderline insane, fearlessly comical.

By complete coincidence, I was having lunch today with my sister, and she mentioned something Jerry Seinfeld had said about his “Seinfeld” co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He pointed out that although she is a beautiful woman, she never lets any desire to look good interfere with her comedy. She’s willing to be as crazed, rubber faced or ridiculous as needed to get the laugh across. Which, he said admiringly, makes her a true comedian.

Immediately, of course, I thought of Lucille Ball, another beautiful woman who was willing to go to the mat for comedy. And it struck me that this was exactly the problem — Barbra wasn’t willing to go to that edge. In fact, she never went anywhere near it. She gave the idea of a person willing to do pratfalls, but as you watch her performance you can always see her signaling to you that it’s just an act.

Of course Barbra Streisand was fighting other battles. She was busy showing the world that a woman who looked ethnically Jewish could also be seen as very beautiful, which was a real battle back then. Similar battles have been fought in other eras over the beauty of other ethnicities — black, hispanic, greek, italian and, in its day, almost any other “outsider” culture. And it’s not just women — Al Pacino fought this battle as well (see the history of the casting of “The Godfather”). So maybe the stakes were too high for Barbra to go to the mat for mere comedy.

But Brice was not interested in fighting for beauty, and she never portrayed herself as one. Beauty, in our society, can itself be a kind of prison. Free of that prison, Brice was free to express herself without restriction, and to be a great comic genius.

Safety meter

I suspect that each of us carries in our head, at every moment, a little meter that indicates “how safe am I now”. I’m not talking here about physical safety, such as the danger that we may be run over by a bus or hit by a stray bullet.

No, I’m talking about something both more subtle and more ineffable — our sense of psychological safety. When we are at dinner with good friends, laughing over a meal and perhaps a bottle of wine, our safety meter tends to read very high. But when we are in a strange country, confused and a little lost, or at a party among strangers where we sense that we are missing key social cues, our safety meter might read considerably lower.

I have had the unnerving experience of seeing my own safety meter plunge, at a moment’s notice, from very high to very low. It can happen when an argument erupts seemingly out of nowhere, or upon suddenly learning something unpleasant about a person you’ve long admired. There is a virtiginous sense of the world shifting, almost as though the floor has disappeared from beneath your feet.

There is nothing we can do about such moments. They will continue to happen no matter how carefully we try to guard the gates of our psyches. The only thing we can do is enjoy those lovely moments in between, the mornings at home sipping our coffee, or out to dinner with good friends, or the wonderful feeling of seeing a play with just the right person.

It is so easy to take such things for granted, but they are more important than you may think. When those other moments come, and your entire psychic world finds itself suddenly plunged into unsafe waters, you will need something to hold onto, to pull you back ashore.

A model of itself

Yesterday’s post was a simple example of a tool to create procedural music. Of course there is much more one could do with this — such as the rich array of work by Toshio Iwai and many others.

But if your goal is to enable crowd-sourced procedural music, where a community collaborates on-line to build a kind of interactive musical world, then things need to be especially intuitive, and people who wish to contribute need to be able to understand quickly and easily the things that were made by other people.

This suggests that in some sense the thing needs to be a model of itself. You have to be able to look at it and say, right away, “oh, I see, this is the structure.”

Which means that the tool set needs to be very carefully chosen. A repetition should look like a repetition, a transposition should look like a transposition, and a theme and variations should look like a theme and variations– immediately, without any need for head scratching.

This is going to require something much more sophisticated than the little toy I posted yesterday. I suspect it will involve zooming in and out — so you can choose to tweak little details or to zoom out and rearrange the entire structure.

I’m not sure what such a community-built musical world construction kit will look like. But I’m pretty sure that when it finally starts to work properly, it will be great fun to play with!

Collaborative music

Today we’re taking things up a notch. This is the first collaborative applet I’ve posted that can be said to have a clearly defined goal.

All I’ve really done is add candy button musical notes to a variation on the lines and circles world. But that’s enough to allow your network of lines to be used to compose original music.

Of course there are lots more interesting things still to add. For example, with just a few more ways to control the flow, I could let you make much more sophisticated procedural music. But this is a start.

As usual, click on the image below to link to the applet:


I was very excited to read today in the New York Times about the invention of an anti-laser. Essentially, this is a device that reverses what a laser does — it absorbs coherent laser light rather than generate it.

Now that physicists have established a methodology for reversing such a fundamental technology, I am eager to see them apply the principle to other mechanisms of interest. Here are a few ideas which I am hoping will inspire any ambitious physicists out there looking for a worthy and interesting project:

  1. An anti-clock: When I am late for an appointment or meeting, this technology would allow me to reverse what a clock does — by absorbing time rather than generating it. Interestingly, there were several times just today when I could have used such a technology.
  2. An anti-Muzak: When you are trapped in your dentist’s waiting room, and you realize you are hearing the Soft Sounds of the 1000 Strings Orchestra version of of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the seventh time, that’s when you really need a physicist — someone who can invent a way to reverse such abominations, rather than generate them. Maybe, with any luck, if you play one of those things backwards you’ll hear the voice of Kurt Cobain.
  3. An anti-social-gaffe: I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I have plunged myself into complete social disaster through a single ill-conceived remark. I would be quite interested in a technology that would allow me to reverse such a social gaffe, rather than generate one. In fact, I really could have used one of these at that dinner party this past Sunday (sigh).

Does anyone else have any similar promising areas of research to propose? I really think we all owe it to our physicist friends to give them plenty of opportunities to build truly useful and groundbreaking anti-devices.

The public sphere

I got into a fierce conversation this evening with a very intelligent and thoughtful person about Julian Assange, the main spokesperson for Wikileaks. My conversant’s contention was, in essence, that Assange doesn’t pass the smell test. She felt that he is not motivated by a desire to make the world a better place for all, but rather by a kind of self-focused aggrandizement, a need for ego gratification.

My argument, which I suspect got lost in the heat of the rhetorical moment, was not that she was wrong, but rather that there is no way for us to know. The sheer noise, I claim, of the publicly received version of events has become so loud that the hype of media tropes drowns out niceties such as who any public figure really is and whether he is truth-teller or charlatan.

And that brings us around to a question: Is it even possible for the citizen, no matter how informed, educated, thoughtful, or outward looking, to evaluate the events and players in the public sphere? After all, we are, for the most part, dealing with consummate professionals in the business of spin, of polishing images, of crafting just the right sound byte to dominate the conversation.

Is it even possible for you or me to deploy a b.s. detector that will let us know whether what a public figure has just told us is sincere — or is merely highly crafted hokum?

Server side

The recent set of posts that allow people reading this blog to make persistent changes to my Java applets is making use of a capability provided by Murphy Stein — a Ph.D. student in the NYU Department of Computer Science.

Murphy wrote two computer programs that are sitting on my web-site (commonly referred to as the server side):

  1. a program that waits until a Java applet sends it some data, and then writes that data to a file on the web-site’s host computer;

  2. a program that waits until a Java applet asks for some data, and then retrieves the data from that same file.

It’s not very fancy, but it completely gets the job done. Basically, this allows each Java applet to keep its very own persistent record of what’s going on — like having your own locker at the gym.

Of course every Java applet uses its locker differently. Some might store little bits of text, while others store instructions about how to draw a picture.

But what they all have in common is that they allow people to make changes that will be remembered when somebody else visits the site. Which is very cool!