Archive for September, 2012

Arbitragedy

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

This weekend I saw “Arbitrage”, the feature directing debut of Nicholas Jarecki (he also wrote the screenplay). It was quite good — with Richard Gere, Tim Roth, Stuart Margolin and Nate Parker much more than merely good — until the final plot twist.

At that point, mere minutes from the end, character coherence and believability were thrown out, all subtlety was sacrificed, and we were asked to believe that one of the principal characters had suddenly transformed into a psychotic villain from a bad B movie.

When this happened, I could feel the audience deflating around me, everyone in the theatre simultaneously saying to themselves “What the F—?!?!”.

From the perspective of “an American commercial movie”, it was clear why this choice was made. The idiotic plot twist conveniently balanced out the “moral scales” in a way that a movie studio would think an audience would like. It made complete sense in terms of formula. Just not in terms of the actual film we had been watching.

I would like to think that Jarecki was not responsible for this betrayal of what had been, up to that point, a well constructed movie. I would like to think that his movie was hijacked by rewrite demands from some clueless suit at Lions Gate Entertainment flushed with arrogance at the recent commercial success of “The Hunger Games”.

At least, that’s what I would like to think. It would be too awful to think that the writer himself simply destroyed his own story.

Orgone Box

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

This week I went to the Ghosts in the Machine exhibition a the New Museum, which traces the history of the relationship between machines and art. When I walked into the room that contained one of Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Boxes, I found myself riveted, but it took me a while to understand why.

Eventually it came to me that the Orgone Box — a therapy tool based upon spending time within a metal-lined wooden box to focus sexual energy as a way toward general well-being — epitomizes to me a peculiar trend in American culture, a trend that peaked around forty years ago.

Until around the mid 60’s, technological progress in the U.S. was seen as an unambiguously good thing. Then Vietnam happened, and advanced technology began to be associated by liberal intellectuals with a larger pattern of brutal and unjustifiable military intervention.

This caused an odd split. Young liberals began to reject actual science and replace it with pseudo-science (some new, and some recycled). Nutty ideas like Toth pyramids, ESP, theories of alien visitors and Orgone Boxes became all the rage. Cause and effect as well as evidence-based reasoning were rejected by many young liberals, replaced by a kind of “Cargo Cult” version of science.

Now, forty years later, things have shifted dramatically. Liberals embrace the scientific community and its careful adherence to evidence-based reasoning, whereas political conservatives take an anti-intellectual stance (or, in the startling case of Rick Santorum, an anti-intelligence stance). The Tea Party rejects the carefully accumulated evidence for climate change, and even the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

So the liberals are now on the side of science, and the conservatives are on the side of anti-science — a complete reversal from forty years ago.

I wonder whether this is a cyclic phenomenon. Perhaps every 80 years or so liberalism coincides with respect for evidence-based science. Just a thought.

September haiku

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Summer drifted by
One day, upon a cool breeze,
As though in a dream

When Autumn swept in
All across Washington Square
Flurries of young minds

Catching the glass

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

There is a by now familiar scene in the overall genre of pop magical realism in which our hero, who only we know is secretly a superhero, or an alien, or a vampire, or a slayer of vampires, or maybe is just cyber-enhanced by a neurologically-linked titanium alloy nanowire endoskeleton, finds his or herself at a social gathering, perhaps a cocktail party.

As a rule, this party must be the antithesis of the heroic. Rather than flying through the air to head off a fiery atomic missile mere minutes from downtown Chicago, or stoically enduring a lone vigil in outer space, or perhaps just fighting off a swarm of hideous flesh eating daemons spawned in the very bowels of Hell, our hero must do something truly frightening — make small talk.

And then it happens. Amid the uncomfortable ties and the little black dresses and the unidentifiable canapés, somebody drops a glass. Normally this would result in shattered glass everywhere, but not this time.

In a movement far too rapid to be tracked by the unaided eye, our hero reaches out a hand and snatches said glass deftly in mid-fall. The undamaged crystaline container is thereupon handed nonchalantly to its former possessor, a fetching young person of opposite gender, who inevitably gapes at our hero with astonished admiration, while mentally rearranging her/his plans for the end of the evening.

The problem with this picture is that if you were actually a super being mingling incognito with the cocktail crowd, you would never catch the glass. Of course you could catch the glass, but that would blow your cover.

In a truly enlightened moment of pop culture, our hero would — in elegant slo-mo — start to catch the glass, then think better of it, then deliberately miss the glass, allowing it to shatter uselessly to the floor. This is clearly the only way to avoid detection by that sinister looking bald headed gentleman at the punch bowl who even now is plotting world domination and/or destruction.

I mean, this is obvious, right? And yet you never see this. Now why is that, can somebody please tell me?

Make a mess, clean it up

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

In the last few days I did a flurry of computer programming. There was an idea I wanted to try out, so I just threw together a solution as fast as I could — essentially with rubber bands and krazy glue. At some point it started to work, but of course it was all a complete mess under the hood.

Here’s the thing: Programming is a little like rock climbing. You can reach out an arm or a leg to pull yourself up and gain a higher purchase, but you can’t extend all your limbs at once. Translated into programming, this means that you can only afford to make one mess at a time. Then you need to clean up.

So after my flurry of activity, I proceeded to turn the mess I had made into something clean. It still looked the same on the surface, but underneath everything was now tidy, ordered and properly labeled. And perhaps more important, some of the components under the hood have become shiny new tools that I can use for other things.

Which means I can now go ahead and make another mess. :-)

Kinderszenen

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

I had a memory today from when I was eight years old. At the time, my parents owned a big old upright piano. It wasn’t very good, but it had an extremely large sound. Once a week the piano teacher would come to give lessons to my brother and me. She was an old German woman, very strict and always serious. The only music she ever taught was Schumann — the Kinderszenen and Album für die Jugend — which she encouraged us to play as loudly as possible.

In those years, our family would spend July and August in the Catskill Mountains, where my brother and I would often try, with paper cups, to scoop guppies from the creek near our summer cottage. The few we caught were cherished, and at summer’s end these would always ended up in a glass bowl on top of that piano. Sometimes the piano was so loud that a guppy would jump clear out of the bowl, and flop around on top of the piano until we put it back.

Once I found a dead guppy behind the piano, and I felt incredibly sad. I knew even then that guppies do not like Schumann. At least, not the way we played it!

Happy birthday Jim!

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Today is Jim Henson’s birthday, and though the man himself, sadly, is not here with us to enjoy it, his wonderful and influential legacy lives on.

You probably know of Jim Henson only from his work with the Muppets. This all by itself was a groundbreaking advance, one now so familiar that we generally take it for granted. After all, the many innovations that went into Henson’s Muppets — advances such as placing the camera in the moving puppet’s eye plane, having puppeteers “act for the camera” (while looking into a monitor), abandoning the traditional marionette for a far more expressive soft puppet — led to the first true mass success for puppetry, the first time puppetry truly became an integral part of the twentieth century broadcast revolution.

But there was a lot more to Jim Henson than his most well known success. He was one of those restless geniuses who keeps inventing and reinventing, always coming up with new genres and ways of seeing. To take just one example, you were probably not aware of his wonderful surrealist short film Time Piece. In 1966 it was nominated for an Academy Award. I think it should have won.

Springsteen on the Beach

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Someone I’m very close to went this weekend to see the revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of “Einstein on the Beach”, the 1976 formalist opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson. I could have seen it too, but found myself not so strongly motivated.

Theatre works built on pure formalism don’t always work for me — especially, as in this case, if the experience lasts longer than four hours. While I respect the concept, my limit for experiencing abstract performance at BAM doesn’t always veer very far to the other side of Pina Bausch.

So this weekend I went to see a very different performance, also more than four hours long — Bruce Springsteen at the Meadowlands. On the continuum between formalist and romantic art, Springsteen is the epitome of the romantic end of the spectrum. The man can work a crowd better than Bill Clinton, and he had the audience in sheer heaven every moment.

When you attend a Springsteen concert, you become caught up in raw primal emotion — all the ecstasy of a Gospel revival with none of the Original Sin. In Springsteen’s world, we are all saints and sinners both. His songs are stories of how those two states of being coexist, and how that heady mixture makes us beautiful.

So there you have it — two people making very different concert choices on the same weekend, both of us highly aware of the difference between appreciating a work of art and loving it. Then again, there are places where our respective tastes coincide splendidly.

For example, in a few months we will be attending a performance together that is, arguably, in the precise center of the dialectic between BAM and The Boss: We are going to see Leonard Cohen.

Geometric intuition

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

I went to a talk yesterday given by an eminent mathematician. He spoke on two related topics, one of which I listened to avidly, and the other I ended up completely tuning out.

From the perspective of the speaker the two topics were strongly related to each other. Yet from my perspective they couldn’t have been more different.

The difference was that for the topic I liked, I could form a geometric model in my head of the fundamental argument. Once I saw this geometry, everything became intuitive. I could play with it in my head, test the ideas for myself, and try out variations of his argument.

For the other topic, as far as I could tell, there was no geometric intuition — the arguments seemed purely symbolic. Intellectually, I could see how it might be interesting, but emotionally I felt no connection.

I guess it’s a good thing I’m in the field of computer graphics. :-)

Sideways

Friday, September 21st, 2012

I’ve been working on a new kind of computer interface, and having a great time doing it. It’s kind of my “shiny new toy”. When I was six years old I felt the same way about a plastic dinosaur. Only now I get to make the dinosaur myself.

At some point a few days ago I reached a kind of impasse, not sure what next to add to my little project. Feeling restless, I went back and started playing with a completely unrelated project, something I’d worked on years before. Immediately I saw problems with the old project, and wanted to fix them.

Then it occurred to me — I could add things to the new project that would let me use it to tweak the old project. Suddenly my current project had renewed purpose and meaning, and it was clear to me what to add to it next.

It seems to me there is an important principle at work here. If you get stuck on something, the most productive solution might be to work on something completely different — something that will get your mind thinking in different ways and get you unstuck.

Sometimes the best way forward is sideways.