Archive for June, 2012

A kind of collaboration

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

I’ve been giving a number of talks lately about my work, and I’ve been noticing how each successive talk has been informed by the talks that came before it. In fact, it has become very clear to me that such a talk — particularly when the talk involves live demos — is a kind of laboratory.

The process of teaching is, of course, also a process of learning, but it’s more than that. Talking about the work is an important part of doing the work.

It’s like of like the reason a singer/songwriter goes on tour: You need to put your songs out there, and invite a kind of collaboration with your listeners.

In between

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The moment between moments, too fast to see
When everything happens that you cannot see
The rise and the fall, the second unseen
When everything happens all in between

The glint in the sun, the casual flash
A whisper, a touch, or a glance
The moments in time that melt in the rain
The whisper, just once, of romance

We live all our lives between moments like these
We wait for the breath to exhale
All ’round the world, again and again
They echo, a tale in a tale

Of a moment, one moment, too fast to see
When everything happens that you cannot see
The rise and the fall, the second unseen
When everything happens all in between


Monday, June 18th, 2012

I was watching the BBC One series “Merlin”, about the fabled magician as a young boy (three cheers for streaming Netflix!) when I came upon a scene in which Merlin’s mentor is poring over an ancient text.

For about two seconds the content of the book flashed on screen, just long enough for me to capture this image:

In many ways it is a fascinating image. The production designers clearly borrowed from actual Proto-Germanic glyphs, yet they took all sorts of liberties. The horizontal axis that runs through every line in this book has no correlate in ancient epigraphy. And you can see places where the designers just went wild — I can practically hear someone saying “hey, wouldn’t it be bloody marvelous if we threw in a few sine waves?”

Whatever the process behind this slightly daft reboot of ancient Runology, I’m struck by the fact that somebody clearly worked on it for a long time. Yet it flashes by on the screen for all of two seconds.

Ah well, one thing that hasn’t changed since Merlin’s time: Life is still unfair.

An early memory

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Today, for the first time in a long time, I found myself thinking back upon a particularly intense moment in my life, when I was about five years old, in day camp.

I and my fellow campers were playing in a sandbox. Within that sandbox, not all kids were equal. One or two five year olds were very powerful, easily lording it over the others. Another one or two were the weaklings in the group, treated with no respect and generally picked upon. I was, more or less, one of those quiet kids between these two extremes, who manages to fade into the background simply by doing a very good job of not being noticed.

I would not have remembered any of this, but for an odd thing that happened that day. A group of women happened to walk by our little sandbox. When they saw us playing together they immediately started cooing to each other, saying things like “Oh, aren’t they just adorable?”

I remember marveling at the time how odd it was that they could find us cute, feral little creatures that we were. This is a fairly precise description of how I remember feeling at that moment, although it would be quite a few years before I would even know about such words as “feral”.

That might very well have been the first moment in my life when I was exposed to one of life’s great mysteries: The vast difference between how life looks from the outside and how it is experienced on the inside.

Competition and kinship

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

If you were told that you could enter a contest, but that if you lost the prize would go to a total stranger, you might just say “that’s nice, but I’m really busy right now.”

On the other hand, if losing the prize meant that it would go to one of your professional peers, you might be more motivated. In this case, your status among your peers might be affected by the outcome (this is quite dependent, of course, on the nature of the contest).

But suppose we move even closer to home. Suppose your rival for the prize was your brother, or your spouse, or one of your own children. In this case you might have a disincentive to win. You could very well be happier to see your child win the prize, rather than yourself.

These scenarios seem to point to an odd non-monotonic relationship between competition and kinship. When people are very distant from us, their effect on our competitive drive is essentially neutral. As they get closer, competition starts to increase, until at some point — when they are extremely close to us — it can suddenly flip and go negative.

I have a sense that this kind of relation (more or less an (x-σ)/(x+1)2 shaped curve) might show up a lot in quite a few contexts, from sociology to economics to biochemistry to astrophysics and beyond.


Friday, June 15th, 2012

Recently I saw a package bearing the following sign:

My first thought was how clever it was that the label was showing which direction should be down, in bold defiance of the usual trend.

In a way this choice makes more sense. After all, down is the direction of Earth itself, toward solid stability. The bottom of a box is its supporting face, the one upon which it will ultimately touch down, after the carrier has relinquished his trusted burden.

How much more clever to orient according to this direction, rather than employing yet another tired sign that merely points upward toward the ethereal sky.

Just as I was congratulating both myself and the unknown label designer, I suddenly realized that the box was upside down.



Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Today I learned from a colleague about the ecological concept of “adaptation”. Scientifically, this concept is very straightforward, but politically it can be devilishly tricky.

Adaptation relates to climate change. Most scientists agree that research results strongly indicate climate change to be a serious issue in the coming decades.

For the purposes of this discussion, let us agree to put aside arguments by people who refuse to even look at these research results, out of suspicion that scientists are engaged in some sort of vast conspiracy. Those people have their own blogs. :-)

OK, back to the science. It’s one thing to agree on what is happening, and quite another to agree what to do about it. Politically it is relatively straightforward to say “we must stop the advance of climate change”. After all, even a small rise in sea level can cause flooding over vast coastal areas throughout the world.

My colleague told me that it is unclear at this point how effective such a strategy can be. The evidence suggests that even with our best efforts, there will be climate change. So a comprehensive response would logically also involve humans adapting to the Earth’s changing condition.

But to advance such a strategy of adaptation is, apparently, politically untenable. Imagine you are a scientist explaining what the evidence indicates about the more devastating effects of climate change. It is rather awkward if you then appear to say “Well, maybe we can live with it.”

Yet apparently some entrepreneurs are already creating business models for how best to capitalize on the advent of shrinking coast lines, displaced wildlife, ruined cities, and radically disrupted ecosystems. Whenever there is radical change of any sort, there is money to be made.

The argument has even been made that this sort of planning is better for everybody, as well as a boon to the economy, since active adaptation is better than passive waiting for devastation.

When I heard this, my very first, rather cynical, thought was: “A rising ocean lifts all boats.”

Ambition, Examined

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

If we knew just why it’s true
That we do the things we do,
Would we still want to see them through
By and by?

You don’t need much erudition
To view all of this ambition
With just a slight suspicion.
Well, let’s say

That when our zeal implores us
To try out for the chorus
Or to slay that brontosaurus,
We knew why.

Would we still retain those fires
Which this ‘doing things’ requires?
Or would all of those desires
Fade away?

And we wouldn’t do a single thing all day.

When we’re climbing Kil’manjaro
On that path so steep and narrow
Would it thrill us to the marrow
To know why?

Or would climbing lose its gleam
And ambition come to seem
Like some half remembered dream
That flitted by?

Would we still swim across the sea
Get a doctoral degree
All while deftly brewing tea
Or just say “Nay!”

Perhaps the chorus, brontosaurus
Mountain rim, the longish swim
And all the sea, degree and tea
Would fade away

And we wouldn’t do a single thing all day.

Mining life for art

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Pretty much everyone experiences intense emotional experiences, of elation or sadness or just about anything in between. One thing that distinguishes artists (in whatever medium) is that they mine these very real emotions to create their art.

In many cases, some large group of people finds their lives enriched by this endeavor. Think of Mozart’s “Requiem”, or Plath’s “The Bell Jar”, or “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge.

But what then is the relationship between the artist and his/her own personal life? Does the artist have sole ownership over this source material? What about the other people who were part of whatever emotional turmoil was mined in order to create this art? Why don’t they have a say?

The artist might say to these people: “Because it is art, and art belongs to the world.”

It’s an odd sort of conflict. Perhaps if Shakespeare or Austen had been a bit more circumspect about exploiting the emotional crises of people they knew (and perhaps loved), today we would not have “Much Ado about Nothing” or “Emma”.

Songs versus stories

Monday, June 11th, 2012

I’ve recently started writing songs. And was immediately struck by how much more user friendly they are than prose. A story requires each reader to actively participate, and the reader generally must do this alone.

A song, on the other hand, transmits its message on the wings of melody and harmony. It pleases the ear and soothes the mind, while requiring no effort at all to enjoy. And listening to a song is a really fun thing to do with friends. Best of all, people sometimes start singing your song, and then they become carriers for its message.

Think about it. When was the last time you memorized a story you had read, so that you could go around reciting it to other people? For songs this sort of thing happens all the time.

One could argue that songs have more limited idea bandwidth, since all thoughts must be compressed down to fit the severe constraints of the lyrical form. But sometimes that can work to increase the power of the message.

For example, it seems that every other day, when I walk into a store or a restaurant in Manhattan, they are playing John Lennon’s “Imagine”. This is a song that trashes religion, espouses atheism, disparages the concept of allegiance to one’s country, and even takes down private property and rights of ownership.

Yet everyone who listens to it gets a nice dreamy look on their face. After which, they sometimes walk around for the next few hours singing it, thereby repeating the song’s radical message for all to hear.

Try doing that with a story.