Archive for March, 2011

Reality filter

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

One of the things most of us seem to take for granted is that reality is consistent. People of our acquaintance tend to respond to things in relatively predictable ways, and things around us seem to work more or less the way we expect them to.

Over time, we build a model in our heads of how things work. Barring major disasters, reality generally fits this model, falling into recognizable patterns.

But what if this is an illusion? Maybe people around us do not behave predictably, maybe things are not working according to plan. Perhaps, in reality, the people in our lives are sending us a continuous jumble of conflicting signals, and we just don’t see it.

It may be the case that the human mind, when it is functioning “normally”, imposes a kind of filter on the signals it receives, forcing our perceptions into recognizable patterns, even if those patterns do not quite fit the data.

For example, someone you know might vary widely in mood — being cheerful one moment, and morose the next — and you simply might not notice the variation, because one of those moods corresponds to your conception of this person, while the other is tossed out by your mind as anomalous data.

I’m not sure there is any real way to test this theory. I strongly suspect this filter exists, but it’s hard to tell how strong it is, since we can only evaluate things through the lens of our own perception.

In any case, if this is the way perception actually works, I’m pretty satisfied with this arrangement, since I find most of the people I know to be quite nice to be around.

But maybe that’s just me. :-)


Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

It’s funny how certain names seem to gravitate toward particular meanings. Take the name “Watson”, a name that was in the news lately because of the Jeopardy playing IBM computer.

But of course there was a reason this computer was given its particular name. Twas named for the eponymous Thomas J Watson, who while president of the company now known as International Business Machines from 1914 to his death in 1956 built it into one of the largest and most successful corporations in history. The name IBM became so synonymous with computers it inspired the name of the most famous computer villain in history (as well as, arguably, the most likable). Know who I mean? :-)

Yet the name Watson also shows up in the person of James D. Watson, one of the two men credited with discovering that DNA forms a double helix — a structure which is key to the mechanism of genetic replication. Notice that I said one of two men. Often left out of the story is the woman, Rosalind Franklin, who should have shared the Nobel prize (you see boys, the hydrophilic molecular backbone goes on the outside).

And then of course there is John H. Watson, M.D., friend and chronicler extraordinaire of one Sherlock Holmes. He was the very model of the scientifically minded Victorian gentleman, but also not one to shy away from a fight, should the situation call for it. Evidently an excellent doctor and surgeon, Watson was ever in thrall to Holmes’ scientific approach to criminal investigation.

So here we have three notable figures, all named Watson, all representing a peculiarly western vision of science — science as a kind of vigorous boys club, decidedly masculine and pointedly brash.

Of course every rule has its exception. The best version I’ve ever seen of Sherlock Holmes’ friend and confidente Dr. Watson was played by a woman. Extra points if you can identify the actress and the film.

Just weird enough

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Today I was having a conversation at a whiteboard with a colleague — one of those brainstorming sessions where you say “what if we did this“, and scribble something, and then the other person says “yes, but suppose we did that“, and before you know it you’ve figured out something really cool together.

As soon as we realized we had come up with something interesting and useful, one of the first thoughts we had was “surely, somebody has thought of this before”. That question is important, because it’s the difference between doing something fun just as an exercise for yourself, and doing something that can really make a contribution to the community.

At first I was convinced we must be following in the path of others. But the more I thought about it, the less certain I was. Even though our result is useful, the place we started from was a little weird — we hadn’t framed the problem the way this sort of thing is usually framed. Maybe, just maybe, nobody had ever asked this particular question before.

And then I realized that maybe one key to making original contributions is to ask questions that are just a little bit weird. Not too weird mind you — just weird enough.

The last picture show

Monday, March 28th, 2011

There was a time when you had to go to a movie theater to see a film. The projectionist would mount a big reel of 35mm print, the house lights would go down, and the flickering magic would begin. Then along came television — a more convenient and decidedly less magical alternative.

The progression continues apace, as movies migrate to our portable devices. We seem to continually trade away magic for ever more convenience. I wonder whether there is some sort of universal constant, some formula like M = 1/C, a kind of inverse law between convenience and magic.

Soon there may come a time when the last movie theater is boarded up, relic of a bygone age, like the corset, or the family doctor who makes house calls. We will all stream our movies in real-time through our cellular networks, onto some portable device or other.

But what will happen after the electronic pulse that wipes out all electronic systems, signaling the start of World War III? What will happen when our civilization has collapsed, as civilizations inevitably do, and we find ourselves groping in the dark, our once vaunted cellphones now useless hunks of plastic and coltan derivatives?

There will no longer be any physical record of the movies that once were, merely the memories in peoples’ minds of films they still remember from childhood, magic images that used to flicker on the screens of the cellular devices of yesteryear. Even these memories will fade each year like a painting in the desert sun, until all that is left is legend, words that escape meaning, like Rhett and Scarlett, Chaplin, Kubrick, Dorothy and the Tin Man.

Of course in time, over the span of centuries, civilization will rebuild itself, as civilizations always do. Perhaps our distant progeny will learn from their forebears’ sad cultural collapse, or perhaps such cultural tragedies are destined to ever repeat themselves, like a Library of Alexandria burning through all eternity.

Ten thousand years from now, when someone finally green-lights a movie about that fabled thing of dreams and myth called “Hollywood”, that dimly remembered Shangri La of beautiful people who never grow old, perhaps they will tell the sad tale of how cellphone streaming spelled the death of our film legacy.

When they do, I have a great title for them, although I doubt the filmmakers of the future will understand. I think they should call it “Lost Verizon”.


Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Today I cleaned.

Went through papers, mound by mound, wrestled my apartment to the ground. Threw out all those boxes of stuff, couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. Stacks of newspapers starting to mold, some answering machines maybe ten years old, piles and piles of useless crap, then stopped a while and took a nap.

Woke up refreshed and kept on at it (after drowning in all this stuff I’d had it). Pulled the good stuff from the bad, went through everything I had. Several hours later on, with all the useless garbage gone, my place looked sparkling, wondrous — new! I swear my soul felt cleaner too.

I’m sure you know just what I mean. Sometimes it’s just good to clean.

Interdisciplinary map

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

I am working on an interdisciplinary proposal with a really interestingly broad range of colleagues. In the mix are people who do research in computer graphics, user interfaces, child language development, data collection, parallel computation, interactive storytelling and other things besides. All of the pieces fit together, but no one participant knows enough about all of these fields to be able to see the entire picture down to its details.

For example, I may understand perfectly well why parallel computation is useful to me, yet I might not be able to understand the details of a technical paper by one of my colleagues that explains his research results in that field. And that’s the key: I don’t need to understand how his field works to be able to work with my colleague, but I do need to understand what his field accomplishes.

This kind of thing comes up all the time. The people who work together on a movie — actors, director, producer, gaffer, best boy, and so on — don’t all know how the others do their jobs. But they understand enough of the results of that expertise that they can successfully make a movie together. There are similar principles at work in many collaborative endeavors, from building a house to putting out a magazine to running a country.

I think the reason such interdisciplinary links are more elusive in research is that there is no pre-defined driving problem, no movie to make, house to build or magazine to publish. It’s easy to do exploratory research in your own field, but much harder once that research starts to cut across fields with vastly different areas of expertise.

So it occurs to me that it might be interesting to build an interdisciplinary map, on which a field is “located” not according to how it works, but according to what other fields make use of it, and vice versa. Such a map would make it much easier to work out a kind of geography of research, an entire world of potentially fruitful collaborations across disciplines. Deciding where to live in this world (or just to drop by and visit) wouldn’t be so much about what your intellectual neighbors do within their own homes, but about the quality of the discussions you can have with them over the fence.

Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Friday, March 25th, 2011

From the Wikipedia:

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women aged sixteen to twenty-three.[1][2][3] Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors.”

Back in 1911 worker deaths were a common occurrence. But it took something this horrific for people to become conscious of just how bad worker conditions were, thereby prompting workers’ rights legislation. It’s an odd coincidence that the 100th anniversary of this avoidable tragedy is occurring exactly when some political forces in the U.S. are pushing hard to roll back the last century of workers’ rights.

It should be obvious that the U.S. only became a wealthy nation when it finally closed the gap between workers and consumers. Whenever workers are enfranchised to work for their own economic benefit — and the economic benefit of their children — then greater wealth accrues to the nation itself. The workers become the consumers of the goods they produce, which creates a vastly larger market than the small sliver of customers available in an economic oligarchy.

It has been one hundred years since that terrible fire enabled our nation to see that workers are not some vague other, but ourselves. Now newly elected members of congress are pushing hard to move us back to those dark days. Do people who support this movement actually believe, should such an effort succeed, that they themselves will be part of the small sliver of society that will still be able to afford the goods and services most of us now take for granted?

Something to ponder when worker’s rights have been eliminated, the economic engine of our consumer society has been crippled, and we find ourselves living in a poor third world nation, thinking back fondly to those vanished days when we could still afford the fruits of our own labor.

Text forward

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

This evening a friend and I were riding down in an elevator. Several other people got in, people we didn’t know. One of them, looking down at his cell phone, said to his friends “Somebody just replied to my text, but I didn’t send a text.”

One of his friends told him “It must have been a wrong number.”

I know you’re not supposed to cross conversational groups in crowded elevators, but this seemed like a good moment to be helpful. “You know what you need to do,” I told him. “Text it forward. Send a reply to somebody else. Maybe you can keep the chain going. You never know — this could be the start of a new cultural movement.”

Everyone seemed to really like this idea. “Just think,” somebody said, “one day people will realize that it all started right here, in this very elevator.”


Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

I had missed Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in its original production in 1993, so this evening was my first time seeing it. What a breathtaking experience! I have seen many plays, and a good number of those plays touched on math or science, yet this is the very first time I have ever felt that the beauty and wonder of the mathematics that runs through our universe was truly appreciated and expressed by a playwright.

Stoppard’s central thesis, which emerges only gradually, is profound: That the romantic movement which swept through the arts around two hundred years ago was followed later by an analogous sea change in science. Specifically, he notes that the arts evolved from a classical aesthetic — in which symmetry and proportion was the highest ideal — to a romantic aesthetic — in which the very impermanence of things enhances their value and meaning.

Then he connects this with the transition from classical physics to modern physics, with the key turning point being the realizations by Clausius and Lord Kelvin (although they are not mentioned by name) that time’s arrow points one way, and that all energy eventually dissipates. This was a substantial change from the view prevalent from Aristotle through Newton that the universe was a kind of clockwork — a clock that could theoretically just as well run backwards as forwards.

And he manages to do all this within a fascinating historical and literary mystery that contains fascinating human relationships and a central emotional arc between the characters which perfectly matches the philosophical argument.

Early in the second act one of the characters gave an excellent disquisition on iterative functions and the mathematical foundations of fractals. And the genius of it is that everything the character said was perfectly clear to the non-technical Broadway audience.

At one point in this speech, the character talked about “The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.”

And I was completely brought up short, because the mystery of what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in is precisely what had originally led me to discover the full power of procedural textures. It suddenly occurred to me how amazing this moment was. Here I was, sitting in a Broadway theatre, listening to an actor up on stage describing the mathematical ideas that led to my own research.

How often does that happen?

Yin and yang

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Thinking about the terrible recent events in Japan, I found myself wanting to add something beautiful and positive into the world, so I found myself creating a fractal version of the Taijitu, the ancient symbol of Yin and Yang (or, in Japanese, In and Yo).

Variations on this symbol, which is most broadly defined as “a symmetrical pattern inside a circle”, show up in everything from forms in nature to the flag of South Korea:

One thing that appealed to me about creating a fractal version is that it creates a kind of wave-like effect. A wave, the symmetrical interplay between substance and void, seems like a perfect symbol of Yin and Yang. And of course very bad things can happen when a wave gets out of balance. So perhaps to help restore some positive balance into the world, here is my first attempt at a fractal Taijitu: