Archive for September, 2012

Generation shock

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Thinking about it more, I guess there really was no way for Mitt Romney to disavow his remarks during that surreptitiously recorded speech to big-pocket donors. Unlike his somewhat stiff demeanor during public appearances, the video shows him looking and sounding calm, centered and relaxed, very much at peace with himself and with the ideas he is expressing.

We are clearly witnessing a man who is conveying sincerely held beliefs, communicating concepts that to him are inner truths. You really can’t back away from a performance like that. All you can do is move forward with it, and hope for the best.

Yet there is something else going on here. The fact that the video exists at all is an indication of a fundamental generational shift — a shift that until now went unnoticed by many in Romney’s generation.

Until perhaps five years ago, you could safely say anything you wanted to your inner core of supporters. The limits of technology imposed a zone of safety around such situations. That zone is gone, and it isn’t coming back. SmartPhones are everywhere, and just about any event can be surreptitiously recorded.

Interestingly, Barack Obama probably understands this shift quite well. Being only 51 (as opposed to Romney’s 65), he is young enough to understand that there is no longer such a thing as a “private dinner speech”.

Trying to understand

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

I’m trying to understand Mitt Romney’s explanation of his remarks to wealthy donors last May, of which a video was leaked the other day, in which he decried the “47%” of the U.S. population who don’t pay federal taxes (his numbers were a bit off, but that’s ok).

I completely get why candidate Romney would be thumping his chest last spring and flattering wealthy conservatives, in his drive to raise money for a presidential run. That kind of behind the scenes posing is part of the game of electoral politics. And I’m not completely comfortable with the leak of the video. Expecting candidates to present the same message to all audiences, even in what are supposed to be closed-door events, seems to me an impossibly high bar.

But once the video went public, I had expected him to back off at least a little from such an extreme statement. Yet Romney did just the opposite — he dug in and said he stands by the message, although he allowed that he had said it “inelegantly”.

As I understand it, the miscreants Mitt Romney warns about include those retirees who, having paid into Social Security for many years, are now living off the fund they already paid into (Social Security benefits as sole retirement income is not subject to federal taxes).

Is he saying that there is something wrong with being old while not being rich? What should these people have done instead? Refused to pay into Social Security as an act of civil disobedience? What, exactly, does Mitt Romney think he’s saying?

I’m trying to understand what the political strategy is here. And for the life of me I can’t.

Grumpy’s choice

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

I’ve been happily watching “Once Upon a Time”, a television series which mixes reality with fairy tales in an artful and clever way.

As Bruno Bettelheim pointed out in his book The Uses of Enchantment, fairy tales are a very serious business indeed. Encountering stories that touch upon death, abandonment and other primal fears in symbolic terms provides children with a safe way to work through these issues.

So it’s not surprising that “Once Upon a Time” explores many such dark themes. In the course of this exploration, the series raises a number of fascinating questions. For example, in a scene that is at once sad, lovely, clever and laugh-out-loud funny, Grumpy (yes that Grumpy) denounces a potion that would erase the pain of a lost love. His exact words: “I don’t want my pain erased. As wretched as it is, I need my pain! It makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy.”

So here’s a question: If you are feeling the intense — perhaps at times unbearable — pain of having lost someone you love, and you had the choice to simply erase this pain from your heart, as though the love and loss had never happened, what would you do? Would you keep the pain? Or would you choose to remove it, and thereby run the risk of removing a piece of your own identity?

The path taken

Monday, September 17th, 2012

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” — Yogi Berra

I just spent a day working on an idea for a computer graphics technique. It took about four hours for me to begin to understand that I was on a fools errand — that the thing I was trying simply wouldn’t work.

But then I spent another four hours continuing to play with it. As I did this, I felt kind of like an idiot, and I started asking myself “Why am I still doing this? I already know this isn’t going to work. And it’s not like I don’t have other things to do!”

But then an odd thing happened. The first idea changed to a second idea, and then a third idea. By the time I was done, I had come up with something really interesting. It wasn’t the same as the thing I had started out to find, yet I would never have found this new thing if I hadn’t taken that particular path.

Looking back now on the experience, I realize that somewhere in the back of my mind, I had sensed there was something to be found there, and that this intuition had overridden my “better judgement”. I just didn’t know what it was that I would find — until I found it.

Relationship hysteresis

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

When you hold a magnet up to a piece of iron, it takes a little while for the iron’s field to align with the magnet. Similarly, after you’ve taken the magnet away, the iron will act like a magnet for a little while before reverting to its non-magnetically oriented state. This lag between applying a force and the effect of that force is known as hysteresis.

Using an iron core in an electric motor can greatly strengthen the motor, by helping to concentrate the electric field. But the presence of iron also creates hysteresis. The iron core responds to the motor’s electromagnets not the way they are right now, but the way they were a short time ago. This can create a misalignment of magnetic attraction, which results in unwanted heat and friction. If it gets really bad, things can just stop working altogether.

It can be the same with people. We tend to respond to friends, lovers, colleagues and others in our lives not the way they are right now, but the way they were a little while ago. This can make it difficult to figure out both when a relationship is about to start and when it is about to end. For example, when we first meet somebody, it can take us a while to realize they are “interested” in us, because our entire mental model of that person is of someone we are not involved with.

Similarly, once we are in a relationship, remaining in that relationship can become something we take for granted. If the other person then starts to pull away, we might miss the danger signs.

This is relationship hysteresis: Our inner core responds to our lover not the way they are right now, but the way they were a short time ago. This can create a misalignment of magnetic attraction, which results in unwanted heat and friction. If it gets really bad, things can just stop working altogether.

Secular rapture

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Today I participated in a performance piece by Noemie Lafrance. In fact, everyone in the “audience” was a performer. I had heard about Noemie’s wonderful work, but had not experienced it myself. It’s quite wonderful.

There is a long tradition of social dances in which participants are also performers, from disco to ballroom to square dance to waltz to tango to samba and beyond, stretching back to antiquity. What Noemie does is gather very large groups of people in a room that is divided into 2’&#215’2′ squares, and give them instructions on how to move between those squares. These instructions are, in a sense, programs to collectively execute. The result is two-fold: (1) the aggregate group of people forms fascinating and ever-changing patterns, and (2) each individual participant has an incredibly good time.

I can tell you first-hand that there’s something enormously joyful about the experience. After you’ve been doing it for a while, you start to get into a flow with all of these strangers, from the sheer pleasure of forming intricate patterns together. It becomes a kind of secular rapture.

As computers have enabled new forms of social networks, it is delightful to be able to experience an algorithmically enabled social network that doesn’t need a computer — just a big room full of people having a great time.

A Journey through Jabberwocky

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Today I was playing around with zooming as a design element, one of my old favorites. Wanting to do something different, I thought it would be interesting if a continual zoom were to take you back to where you started.

As it happens, this “journey that ends back to its beginning” is exactly the structure of one of my favorite poems — Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, so I decided to put design element and content together.

Somehow it just seemed like a good way to tell this wonderful tale. You can see the result by clicking on the image below:

Our flag

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

I was having a conversation with a friend about how the image of the U.S. flag has, in recent times, become more associated with the political right than the political left. People who “proudly display the flag” are more likely to be Republican, to have hawkish views on war, to be against stricter gun control, and in general to align with conservative positions. This is not to say that liberals never display the flag — but there is a tendency at work here.

I suspect the history of this is intimately tied to our nation’s recent wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The flag became the symbol of “we are right to be here, doing this”. Liberals started to feel wary of the flag as indicating an attitude of “my country right or wrong”, while conservatives (who were more likely to support military interventions) took the opposite view.

Of course this rift started even earlier. During the McCarthy era, a decade before the U.S. presence in Vietnam began to escalate, the words “under God” were inserted into the pledge of allegiance, as a hostile message to godless communists (that is, to the spectral vision of the liberal run amok).

Wouldn’t it be nice if the U.S. flag could be reclaimed by liberal ideals? Perhaps then liberals could proudly display it to symbolize a nation that believes:

in the right to a good education, no matter what family a child comes from (and a nation that understands this is also good business sense);

that people with different metaphysics, ethnicity, gender or gender preference from ours are entitled to equal respect and legal protection;

that we are diminished as a nation whenever we do not actively seek to end poverty, illiteracy and disease around the world;

that war should be the very last resort of a nation state, not the first.

Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to wave the flag proudly for those American ideals?

Sumware Over the Rainbow

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Today in my graduate computer games class I asked students to design a game (which they will then need to implement) which has the following two constraints:

Constraint 1: Playing the game should be an artistic act. The player can be composing music, creating a drawing, making a sculpture or writing a poem — there are many possibilities. But the game must give the player some way to explore their own artistic muse.

Constraint 2: The game should be educational. It could be a way of learning math, or geography, or physics, or history. The educational goal could be anything generally considered useful or worthwhile.

The idea is that providing two constraints pushes the designer to think outside the box, rather than fall back on a variant of a game they already know (which students often do without even realizing they are doing so).

I created a little sketch of a game for them as an example of the general idea. I made sure not to add any fancy art direction — I want them focusing on game play.

You play the game by creating your own original melodies (constraint 1), and as you play, you learn arithmetic sums (constraint 2).

Also, I couldn’t resist the title. :-) Click on the image below to try it.


Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

I had been wondering why this anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center seems particularly intense to me. One would think that the tenth anniversary, just last year, would be more “significant”, whatever that might mean.

Then I realized that the number 11 itself reminds me of the towers. There had long been a connection in my mind between the image of those towers, which loomed over the city I love for much of my life, and the day of the month when they, and so many innocent people, were horrifically destroyed.

The image of two tall figures, standing side by side, is compelling. Artemis and Apollo, Castor and Pollux, Romulus and Remus — there is power and comfort in the very idea of twin identity, of strength and solidarity in the connection between oneself and another.

And so on this, the eleventh anniversary, I realize that one of the casualties of that tragic day was a peculiarly American idea — perhaps foolish and naive, but nonetheless worth thinking — that if only we could figure out our differences, the people of the world might one day be able to stand in solidarity, side by side.