Beyond consumer culture

The idea of a consumer culture is so pervasive in our society that it generally is not seriously questioned in popular debate or political discourse. By “consumer culture” I mean the general notion that a small elite of creators with access to capital (what we in this country generally think of as “corporate America”) creates the innovations and corresponding goods that the rest of us buy, thereby keeping the economy humming along.

But what if this very concept is damaging us? What if it turns out that we are mis-educating millions of citizens from early childhood into a kind of learned helplessness? Advances in information technology are now making available to the individual tools for creation and innovation that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

A feature film with quite impressive special effects can be made on a total budget of $15000 (eg: the recent film Monsters), and a high quality 3D printer costing only a few thousand dollars can be used to prototype at home intricate mechanical parts that would until recently have required a professional machine shop.

It’s a new world out there, but our entire education system is still thinking in terms of churning out little consumers — passive recipients of innovations by the few. Somewhere in the world, people and their governments will soon realize that a revolution is afoot, and that the potential for increase of societal wealth and adaptivity is about to go through the roof.

I sure hope we don’t miss the revolution.

Apples and oranges

Yesterday on the train I saw a remarkable scene unfold. A young man across the aisle was juggling two Apple Macbook computers, balancing one on his knees while simultaneously using the other one on the fold-out tray.

That in itself wasn’t so unusual. After all, we live in a high-tech world. Two computers at once seems, somehow, par for the course. It’s what happened next that I found surprising.

At some point he closed the computer on his lap, tucked it under the open one on the tray, and took an orange out of his bag. He then proceeded to peel the orange upon the gleaming white surface of the Macbook, eating said fruit piece by piece, while placing the bits of discarded peel on his computer, next to the trackpad.

Now, at this point I must confess that I am very particular about my little Macbook Air. Food doesn’t go near it — in fact, nothing goes anywhere near its keyboard but my fingers. So I was quite taken aback by this forward-thinking young man’s repurposing of his high-tech instrument as a snack tray.

When the man was done, he then proceeded to take out a second orange and go through the identical procedure, forming another pile on the other side of his trackpad. Now his Macbook was supporting two piles of discarded orange peel. I was horrified, yet I could not look away.

Thus things remained for quite a while. Eventually, the young man was ready to leave. He cleared the twin mounds of orange peels off his computer keyboard, closed the computer, placed both computers in his bag, and was gone.

And I was left to ponder the amazing differences between people. Here was a man doing something without hesitation (and probably without any thought) that I could never have brought myself to do. People are so different!

Like apples and oranges.


I find myself wondering whether it was a good idea for our president to dignify the silly “birther” myths by publicly refuting them — and thereby acknowledging their existence.

I am reminded of a time, many years ago, when a false rumor started that MacDonald’s had rats in their food. MacDonald’s was in a tough spot. If they said anything, even to say it wasn’t true, it would only increase the visibility of the rumor.

So instead they ran a series of ads about how clean they were. It was very clever. They were floating a countering meme into the public consciousness, without ever having acknowledged the existence of the false rumors. If you watched carefully, you knew what was going on — but that’s not at all the same thing.

What is the best course of action when one is falsely accused of something completely nonsensical? Does it ever do any good to acknowledge idiocy, even to refute it?

Modern haiku

I wonder whether the eternal truths of Zen Buddhism can be applied to our modern, crazy, frenetic lifestyle, with its twitters, texting, iPhones, and constant barrage of multitasked mayhem. Here is my humble attempt to create some appropriate Zen haiku. You might feel the urge to create some as well:

Wisdom for our age,
Timeless yet modern: never
Email in anger

So efficiently
I get three things done at once
Yet, I have no time

In your lover’s eyes
Your cellphone is reflected.
Do not answer it


I just saw “Point Break” for the first time. I have no idea why I never saw this film before — after all, it has been around for twenty years. But there you have it. The only reason I saw it is now that I am going through the entire oeuvre of its director, Katherine Bigelow, one film at a time. So far I’ve seen “The Loveless”, “Near Dark”, “Point Break”, “Strange Days”, and of course “The Hurt Locker”, which means I’m just short of having seen half her films.

The astonishing thing about “Point Break” is that — in sheer movie terms — it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, in spite of a premise that is completely ridiculous. I don’t mean a flawed premise. I mean an in-your-face, pointedly, aggressively ridiculous premise, one that practically puts on a clown suit with pink bunny ears, sticks a banana up its nose and dances the cha-cha on the ceiling with your pet goldfish.

And yet the film works, and works completely, due to utter conviction of execution at every level under the expert directorial command of Ms. Bigelow. I suspect this is true of every Bigelow film. Think back to when you saw “The Hurt Locker”. Psychologically that film takes you to some pretty strange places, and demands an awful lot of faith from its audience. Imagine the same material in the hands of a hack director — it could have been excruciatingly bad, bordering on offensive. But in Katherine Bigelow’s genius hands, it brought you deep into the minds of its characters, going on to win a richly deserved Best Picture Oscar in the process.

Maybe it’s actually a good quality of “Point Break” that its fundamental idea, the situation it asks us to accept, is so completely insane and nonsensical that the audience, once won over by the sheer intensity and conviction up there on the screen, is won over completely.

I wonder whether she could pull this off with any premise. Could there be a premise for a movie that is so crazy that even Katherine Bigelow couldn’t turn it into a great film? I’m open to suggestions. 🙂


For some reason my mind has turned to making automatons. I think this is because of several things: (i) such an activity goes to the heart of Disney’s “Illusion of Life”, (ii) the always delicious possibility of marrying hi-tech to craft, (iii) the really interesting problems to work out that lie exactly where technology meets design meets perception, and (iv) maybe, just maybe, if I play my cards right, I’ll be able to make really fun use of my 3D printer.

Besides, automatons are cool. 🙂


When I heard that Max Matthews had just passed away, my first thought was deep sorrow, and my second thought was how fundamentally he changed our culture.

It’s been well over half a century since Matthews started experimenting with the use of digital computers to create musical compositions. Now, of course, we all live in a world of digitally created art. We take for granted that our music, our movies, our games, our TV ads and just about everything else around us uses digital computers as a tool for aesthetic creation.

But back in 1957, when Matthews created the first real digital computer composition, these giant electronic beasts were generally seen as military tools for fighting the cold war, when they weren’t being portrayed as cold-hearted destroyers of humanity in the work place. The idea that the cybernetic behemoths of the day could be used as tools to create something as lovely and aesthetically focused as a musical composition was simply off the cultural radar.

Now, with the hindsight of fifty four years, after the rise of computer music (a field very much nurtured and mentored by Matthews), and then its younger sibling computer graphics, it’s astonishing to realize how truly radical and ahead of its time was that vision.

Sadly, the man himself is now gone, but he has left behind a powerful legacy, as generations of artists have now walked in his footsteps. In many ways the world of today, our art, our music, our games, the breathtaking computer visions and soundscapes in our movie theatres, are all his children.

Lighting a fire

William Butler Yeats once said that “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire”, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. But what does it take to light a fire?

People who study the science of fire and combustion have an image for what it takes to light a fire, called the “fire triangle”:

For a fire to start — and to continue burning — all three of these components are necessary. But what is the “fire triangle” of learning?

I would argue that the fuel is intellectual curiosity, the oxygen is the sense one has that what is being learned is relevant or meaningful, and the heat or spark is the excitement that comes with true learning. When you look at learning this way, you can see much of what is wrong with our current approach to education, as well as what we might do to make things better.

If a student is told to sit in a classroom and learn something just because “it will be on the test”, then the student is being asked to learn in a vacuum. Without the important questions of “Why am I learning this?” or “What will I be able to do or think about or feel or express after I have learned it?”, then learning cannot really happen.

Yes, a student can be made to memorize, to learn tables of names and numbers and repeat back concepts by rote, but that is not true learning. The flame that Yeats spoke of is a flame of excitement, and that excitement is kindled only when a learner’s inherent curiosity and desire to explore encounters some sort of meaningful context, some interesting space to explore.

But what about the spark? Some students, but only a few, carry with them their very own tinderbox, and those students are very lucky. They have the ability to look at something they do not yet know, and see how their own curiosity will be set ablaze by the promise and implications of this new topic. There was probably little one could have done to prevent Mozart from composing, or Austen from writing, or Ramanujan from creating cathedrals of mathematical beauty.

But most people need a little help to find that spark, and that is where a good teacher is essential. A teacher’s love and passion for a subject is most often the single most important factor in kindling a student’s excitement for that subject. Good teachers know this, and realize, on some level, that they are indeed the keepers of the flame.

So if you’re a teacher (and everyone of us is, sooner or later), go out there and help light some fires!

Probability athiests

I just really like that phrase “probability athiests”. It refers, more or less, to people who refuse to be religious about things probabilistic. No placing wagers on favorite numbers, no buying lotteries based on mom’s birthday, no world view that sees our number line in quasi-religious terms.

It’s hard, given the quirks of human nature, to consider questions numerical in terms that are not beholden to some faith-based reasoning or other. But it’s possible, and useful, and I think it’s important that we take the extra effort to try.