Mystery art

This evening, walking home after a lovely dinner out with friends, I was approached by a young woman, nicely dressed, who looked to be about twenty years old.

“Can you tell me,” she asked, “how to get to the train…” at which point she doubled over and started coughing, somewhat theatrically. A moment later she straightened up and looked at me as though she were about to speak again, only to double over and begin coughing again, in an even more obviously fake and theatrical way.

I waited patiently until she was done, which seemed like the only polite thing to do. After she was finished with her coughing act, she looked at me and said “Hey, what are you looking at?”

I decided discretion was the better part of valor. After all, this was her show, and who was I to be critical? It was obvious by now that I was witnessing some kind of performance or experiment — one that was clearly still under development. “You asked how to get to the train, but you didn’t say which train,” I replied.

She looked surprised for a moment, then said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.”

“In that case,” I said, “go one block that way,” pointing toward the nearby A train station.

“Thanks, you have a good night,” she said.

“You too,” I responded, and continued on home.

Afterward I couldn’t help wondering, what kind of performance had I just witnessed? Was it some sort of clumsily executed stealth cultural survey for an NYU class? Or just a new kind of performance art?

Augmented reality and language

Any change in the technology of communication brings about concomitant changes in language. For example, the twentieth century saw the gradual introduction of television as a preferred medium of public discourse. TV has gradually replaced the written word in parts of our culture. And because TV is more constrained by time, language has become streamlined.

Similarly, the rise in popularity of texting and twitter into the culture have now clearly led to a generational shift in vocabulary and language use. But none of this is really new. Examples of the influence of changing technology upon language can be found throughout history.

Perhaps, as I described in my eccescopy posts, we will some day soon be able to augment our communication with each other by digital objects, images and whatever else turns out to be useful, appearing to float in the air between us. I’ve been wondering what sort of effect this would have on language.

For one thing, linguistic gesture may gain in importance. If our everyday gestural communication can be reliably augmented by digital information in useful ways, then general language use might shift away from predominantly verbal, and toward a more balanced mix of verbal and gestural.

It is not clear what impact such a shift would have. For one thing, I suspect it would be bad for blind people and good for deaf people.


There is a joke going around in physics circles the last few days that has become so iconic, it has already been written about in the august scientific journal Nature:

The bartender says “I’m sorry, we don’t serve neutrinos.”
A neutrino walks into a bar.

This joke is so funny, I was laughing even before I heard it.

There will probably be lots of jokes in response. Here is my humble contribution to the forthcoming collection:

A neutrino walks into a bar.
The bartender says “You told it wrong.”


Playwrights can easily become well known, even immortal. For example, Shakespeare and Molière remain iconic, centuries after their deaths. But that doesn’t seem to happen with writers of screenplays. With very few exceptions (notably Charlie Kaufman and William Goldman) films are not associated with their screenwriters.

Even when you think of masterful examples of screenwriting, such as “Casablanca” or “Bringing up Baby”, you probably don’t think of Julius and Philip Epstein or Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. If you are like most people, you probably haven’t ever even heard those names before. You are far more likely to have heard of those films’ directors — Michael Curtiz and Howard Hawks, respectively.

It occurs to me that screenwriters are hidden from our view, because they are obscured by the single bright shiny object that resulted from their work. Because there is only one such object — the movie that was produced — we associate the result with the production itself, and therefore with the film’s director.

In contrast, there is no one production of “Hamlet”, but rather countless thousands of productions, down through the centuries. “Hamlet” stagings form a vast cloud of produced objects. And the only thing all of those objects have in common is Shakespeare’s play in written form.

The extreme mutability of a play, or any authored work that can lead to many different creative artifacts (other examples are songs and musical symphonies) — gives it the ability to achieve a kind of transcendent cultural power, amplified rather than obscured by its many interpreters.

Musical bits

I was talking to some students about how a number that’s stored in a word of computer memory is made up of individual bits, where each bit is either on or off (ie: one or zero).

To make this easier to understand, I created a little Java applet, which you can play with by clicking on the image below:

But then as I started to play around with this applet, I found myself creating an image of a musical keyboard.

That suggests an intriguing way to link numbers to music. If we assign one bit of any number to each note on the piano — as suggested in the image above — then any number becomes a musical chord.

Perhaps certain mathematical progressions will produce better music than others.


Love and telepathy

I’ve been thinking about what love might be like in a society of telepaths.

Our ability to show love for each other, at least in this Universe, is connected with our ability to choose to make choices that benefit the person we love. The person we love cannot see our thoughts directly — they can only see what we choose to say and do.

If we had the ability to read each others’ minds, would we still be able to show love for one another in this way? In some sense, it is this hidden staging area, this part of ourselves that only we know, which allows us to make these choices at all.

I am trying to envision what it would be like to care for another person in a world in which they know all of our thoughts as soon as we think those thoughts.

On the other hand, it could be that we are psychologically incapable of envisioning such a world. After all, our social development as individuals is entirely predicated on this ability to mediate between thought and action within a zone of absolute privacy.

If we were to encounter a truly telepathic race of people, perhaps our respective societies — and the way people relate to each other within those societies — might be a source of complete mutual bewilderment and incomprehension.

Just a little too fast

Somewhat quietly, in the midst of all the noise and hubbub of politics and pop culture, a news item has appeared reporting that neutrinos have been measured going too fast.

The speed of light in a vacuum — or more precisely, Einstein’s limit on how fast any information carrying event can travel through space — has been regarded for the last century or so as a universal absolute, a fundamental property of our Universe. The value of this constant been repeatedly verified by a large body of careful experimental observation through the years.

Yet these neutrinos were measured traveling from CERN near Geneva to the OPERA detector in Gran Sasso Italy just a bit faster than that. One part in 40,000 too fast, to be more precise. If this measurement turns out to be correct, it will turn much of what we thought we knew about the Universe on its head.

In a few months, this measurement will quite likely turn out to have been the result of some unaccounted for experimental error, as such things usually do.

But we can’t yet know that for sure. And meanwhile, isn’t it fun?

Consensual illusion

I’ve been thinking about how much of life is consensual illusion. I mean “illusion” in the sense of an invitation to make-believe.

When an illusion is well done, we don’t even think about it. In a good production of “Hamlet”, we don’t sit there thinking “this is all obviously fake”. We know it’s all fake, but we don’t care. The players have invited us into a make-believe world, and we gladly enter that world. We are deeply moved when Hamlet dies, even though we know it’s all a chimera created out of words and greasepaint.

If someone were to simply announce “Here is he death scene from Hamlet” and then flatly recite Shakespeare’s lines, we would be unmoved. And if an actual death transpired on-stage, most of us would be horrified, and perhaps deeply scarred by the experience. But that strange liminal space of consensual illusion, of willing suspension of disbelief, creates a safe conduit for the sharing of all sorts of deep and intense emotional experiences.

A great magician does not merely perform tricks, but rather creates an invitation for us to enter an entire illusory world. Similarly, J.K. Rowling never claims that Hogwarts actually exists. We know it doesn’t exist, and that gives us permission to happily go there and experience its reality. These invitations to enter the magic circle of shared illusion are so deeply woven into human nature that even small children immediately understand and accept them.

This principle also pertains in places where we might not think to look for it. For example, I would argue that that the business of Apple Computer these days is, precisely, creating and marketing consensual illusion. Other companies that find themselves unable to compete with Apple for consumer mind-share don’t seem to realize that this is what Apple is really up to. These rival companies appear to be under the impression that it’s all about technology.

Which of course it is not. Like most things that make people desperate to part with their money, it’s really about conjuring an irresistible world of magic.

The next day

Yesterday I wrote about “Taken”. By far the best performance in this mini-series was given by then eight year old Dakota Fanning. Her preternatural presence towered over all the other performances. I suspect Spielberg might have green-lighted this project precisely because he knew that for about a year or two he would have the perfect actor to play the pivotal child role in his epic fantasy.

“Taken” is a multigenerational saga. Actors playing characters we first see as children are then swapped out to play their young adult selves. Aging make-up is then gradually applied as they grow old, even as new generations of actors/characters appear. After watching a few episodes, you come to expect people to age dramatically, practically before your eyes, from one episode to the next.

I remember thinking last night, as I started to watch the ninth of ten episodes, that of course the mini-series would need to end soon, because Spielberg knew it would be impossible to find an adult actress who could match Fanning’s immense charisma and sense of presence.

Which is why I was taken aback today, as I took the elevator up to my office at NYU, to see Dakota Fanning riding in the elevator with me. Not the eight year old Dakota Fanning of 2002, but the seventeen year old version of today. Turns out she’s a student at NYU, where she takes courses in our building, just a few floors below our lab.

For just a moment I found myself in Spielberg’s world. “Of course she’s almost ten years older,” was my first thought. “It’s the next day.”