Leonard Cohen as spiritual advisor

Saw Leonard Cohen last night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We had third row seats near the center, which means we were quite close to the man himself. The tickets were not cheap, but they were easily worth it.

I would have gone just for the sacred privilege of seeing Mr. Cohen, standing on stage with his acoustic guitar, singing “Famous Blue Raincoat” (for my money the greatest song ever written). But there were also many other classic songs in the line-up, including “So Long Marianne”, “Everybody Knows”, “The Future”, “In My Secret Life”, “I’m Your Man”, “If It Be Your Will”, “Anthem”, “Bird on the Wire”, “Tower of Song”, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, “Chelsea Hotel #2”, and of course “Hallelujah” and “Suzanne”, as well as a nice selection from the new album.

All around me the audience was a sea of ecstatic faces. The concert was nearly four hours long, and it felt like it was all over in a flash.

You may know that Cohen once spent five years in seclusion studying Zen Buddhism (he is an ordained Zen Buddhist monk), and it shows. He somehow manages to be calm, playful, reverent and joyful all at once. This quality seeps into not just his singing but his entire stage presence, and flows out to the audience.

But the strangest thing to me was the completely unexpected emotional effect all this had upon me. Having seen Leonard Cohen in concert before, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had felt elated, or peaceful, or, you know, some kind of New Age-y sort of floating thing. But my reaction wasn’t like that. No, nothing like that at all.

Rather, as I watched this remarkable seventy eight year old man take us through his decades long playbook to revisit songs of emotional wisdom, my mind went to another place entirely.

I thought of people I have known — those I have tried so hard to please, and others who have been kind to me. I thought about the times I have been so desperate to be liked by the former, while taking the latter for granted. And watching this man who has so unerringly followed his own inner voice, I asked myself “what the hell was I doing?”

It’s a bit hard to put into words, but the core insight is this: Leonard Cohen, for all his veneer of graciousness, is fierce — he is a warrior. And he didn’t get that way by caring what anybody else might think, or whom he might need to please. Rather, his body of work is a commitment to asking, about hard emotional questions: “what is real, here before me?”, rather than “what would I like to be real?”

As I absorbed this insight, I felt myself reassessing my own priorities, letting go of people whose good opinions I have vainly coveted — in my mind I could feel myself walking away without a backwards glance — and shifting that energy toward cherishing those who have been truly there for me.

If that’s not a kind of enlightenment, I don’t know what is.

A view from the bridge

C.P. Snow famously lamented in 1959 that our two intellectual cultures — Science and the Humanities — are not merely disconnected from each other, but worse, that each is looked at with derision by the other — even those aspects of each that represent pinnacles of our civilization. As he points out, to the great majority of scientists Charles Dickens is an esoteric taste, whereas few literary scholars literary scholars could tell you anything at all about the laws of thermodynamics.

In particular, these prejudices have affected how computer programming has been perceived in our society through the decades. Many brilliant people have tried, from Alan Kay to Seymour Papert to Mitch Resnick, Mark Guzdial, Amy Bruckman and many others, to help computer programming cross the bridge from the culture of Science to the other side. And yet it hasn’t quite happened.

Well, let’s qualify that: From the point of view of scientists, progress has been impressive indeed. Culturally, computers have become what space travel was to an earlier generation: The next “final frontier”, humanity’s newest gateway to the universe. Many more kids are programming today, there is a greater interest in computation in general among young people, and the entire culture of programming is seen as far more cool than it was a generation ago.

But as far as I can tell, none of this has penetrated very deeply into the culture of the humanities. The closest we get is “digital humanities”, which seems to be seen by mainstream humanities scholars with the same sort of annoyed suspicion that the “Art World” used to reserve for digital art (somewhere, Clement Greenberg is smiling).

My hunch is that if there is going to be a way out of this, it will require a large-scale culture and activity of computer programming that is not at all associated with “Science”. I’m not saying this will be easy, or even possible, but I’m working on it!

Incidentally, I suspect that how you interpret the title of this post may be strongly influenced by which of C.P. Snow’s two cultures you identify with. 🙂

Why I love television

I am watching “Doctor Who” (the new one) on Netflix, and have gotten to the second season. In this episode, entitled “The Christmas Invasion”, evil aliens have found a way to hypnotize one third of the human race, turning them into mindless automatons. In a wonderfully eerie scene, ordinary people begin streaming out of their homes and offices, and proceed to march en masse under alien control.

Here you can see an early establishing shot of zombified British citizens shuffling past the good doctor’s Tardis:

Soon after, we see a similar establishing shot in a typical sleepy English suburb, as mind-controlled folk walk obliviously down the street, whilst their horrified loved ones try in vain to awaken them:

A frantic mother tries to get her daughter’s attention, but the possessed young girl continues to march inexorably onward, a strange blue alien light playing about her head:

The mother reaches for her daughter, desperate, knowing she may never see her beautiful little girl again:

And then it happens: The young extra can’t keep it up any longer. In the fraction of a second before the camera cuts away, she gets a case of the giggles.

So there you have it. In one moment we realize that the evil monsters from outer space can never defeat us. We know humanity is safe, not because of some some advanced technology breaking through the fourth dimension, but because of one giggling little girl breaking through the fourth wall.

And that’s why I love television.

A Game of Kōans

Yesterday I went to the Interactive Communications Program (ITP) Winter Show at NYU. There were many great projects, but one in particular caught my attention. Two students — Bona Kim and James Borda — had made a full scale ’80s style arcade game called “The Buddhist”.

The visual iconography was all there for a TRON or PacMan era arcade game, right down to the shapes of the buttons. Except when you played the game, you found that the goal was to enter a contemplative state of mind by letting go of all ego driven goal-directed behavior.

In other words, it is an arcade game, yet it is not an arcade game. Or more precisely, it is a Buddhist Kōan.

This reminded me of a game presented exactly ten years ago, at the ITP 2002 Winter Show, by then-ITP student Ann Poochareon. Her idea was simple: Two players compete with each other by grabbing from a common pool of on-screen words to see who can be the first to successfully complete a Haiku. The game turned out to be extremely popular.

What I find particularly elegant about this idea is that Haiku is in fact traditionally used to juxtapose two contrasting images. As in “The Buddhist”, but perhaps even more so, this game managed to juxtapose competition and contemplation within its very essence.

I can’t remember what the Winter Show was like in 1992, but it would be interesting if it turned out that ITP reaches for enlightenment exactly once every ten years.

My own humble attempts in this direction, quite a few years ago now, were some design experiments for a dance game. Players who successfully match the on-screen dance pattern attain successively higher forms of enlightenment, the ultimate goal being to dance one’s way to Nirvana.

I called it, of course, “Dance Dance Revelation”.


George Carlin had a wonderful comedy routine about how we are all slaves to our stuff. In essence, he said, our accumulation of material confines us; if we want to be truly free, we must ditch the stuff.

But I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. As I look at the accumulation of things I’ve got — books, magazines, record albums, clothes, CDs, papers, puppets, and just plain junk — I realize that this stuff doesn’t exactly belong to me. Rather it belongs to somebody I used to be.

And there, my friends, is the rub. To hold onto these things is to hold onto the illusion that I am still that person — that somewhat lost person from my past — that I sometimes imagine myself to be when I look in the mirror. A young creature of foolish notions and infinite futures, a naive dreamer and follower of fancies.

There are parts of me, of course, that still bear the smooth contours of that unfinished younger soul. There are times when my mind springs back to an earlier time in my life, and the years drop away as if by magic.

But the truth is that this constitutes only a part of me — and not the most important and salient part. We are all an accumulation of lessons learned, of scars won in life’s sundry battles. We contain within us echoes of our younger selves, but we are not them.

If by some happenstance a great calamity were to sweep aside this years long accumulation of the physical detritus of my past, I would not weep for long. For then this burden would be lifted, at least for a time — the burden of these tokens of an earlier self, sneakily encroaching upon the corners of my life.

Society of mind walks into a bar…

Ernest Hemingway once said “Write drunk; edit sober.” This advice does not quite work well for me in its literal form, but the principle is generalizable in intriguing ways.

Other than being drunk or sober, there is a plethora of other ways that one’s mental state can change over the course of a day. For many of us there is that stark difference between before and after the morning cup of coffee. There are also differences in how the mind works at home or in the office, or by oneself versus in the company of friends.

For me, the early morning (after that cup of coffee) tends to be a time of boundless optimism and infinite possibility, a time when I feel as though I am present at the very dawn of the world. My evenings, on the other hand, tend to have a darker cast. After the sun goes down my mind can embrace the sort of rueful melancholy frequently found in Russian novels — and in the people who read them in bars.

There is plenty of empirical evidence to support the general thrust of Marvin Minsky’s “Society of Mind”: That our very sense of having a unified identity is mostly a cognitive illusion, the result of our conscious mind valiantly attempting to weave a single consistent narrative from the many strange and inexplicable things said and done by the many other parts of our mind over the course of a day.

It seems to me that accounting for all of this — the before and after coffee, whether one happens to be sitting at home or at work or on a bus, sunlight streaming from the window or the lack thereof — can be studied, and correlated with the evolving artifacts of one’s own history of writing and editing.

Perhaps if we could better understand which part of our mind is kicking in at various times, we could turn this knowledge into a useful generalization of Hemingway’s dictum — choosing the optimal time and place to attempt different components of the act of creative expression.

In other words, there should be an App for that. 🙂

What is wrong with us?

I get my news from the newspaper — the old-fashioned paper kind — so I didn’t read about yesterday’s horrible tragedy in Connecticut until this morning. When I did, I felt an overwhelming sense of horror. Of all possible acts of insanity, surely none can compare with the deliberate murder of children.

There have always been people who become psychotic, and alas, there always will be. Yet in earlier times, it was not so easy for a psychotic person, no matter how far gone, to kill so many people so quickly. But now we have extraordinarily efficient guns, and we make them very easy to get — including the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle that the shooter actually used to kill all those children yesterday, according to the coroner’s report.

This combat rifle, first used by American troops in the Vietnam war, can fire up to six bullets a second. It was designed to be able to do one specific thing well: Kill large numbers of humans, quickly and efficiently.

Why is such a gun even legally available for purchase by civilians? Why do we Americans, as a society, have such a fascination with owning weapons specifically designed to kill other people wholesale?

What is wrong with us?


In the summer of 2011 I saw Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in the romantic comedy “Friends with Benefits”, in my opinion a superior example of the genre. Unfortunately, the pair was somewhat mismatched, as Kunis was a far more assured presence than Timberlake. Perhaps it would have made more sense if he had performed in that other RomCom of the same summer — “No Strings Attached”.

Yet to give the leading man his due, Justin Timberlake is a man of many hats. Yesterday a friend told me that the former ‘N Sync member had purchased MySpace. I then found out on-line that he had bought it for $35 million, a bargain when you consider that MySpace went for $580 million back in 2005.

If you saw “The Social Network” you may already associate Timberlake with social networking, since he played Sean Parker of Napster in 2010 with far more conviction and panache than he was able to bring to the RomCom genre the following year.

But when my friend told me this news, my first thought was of Timberlake’s recent foray into romantic comedy, and I wondered whether, as the company’s new owner, he could rebrand his acquisition as a site for meeting potential romantic partners on-line.

“Maybe,” I told her “he can call it ‘Friending with Benefits'”.

Beyond the Holodeck

Yesterday a friend was telling me that she had discovered, to her chagrin, that many young people she knows — people in their early 20s — do not recognize the word “Holodeck”. For those of us who were around when Star Trek the Next Generation was on the air, such cultural ignorance can seem shocking.

After all, the Holodeck was, for an entire generation, a kind of shorthand for “the future”, and in particular of the limitless possibilities of technology. In the fantasy world of STtNG it was a virtual environment that enables its to users experience, with full sensory immersion, any virtual reality at all. What could be a more perfect embodiment of “the future”, with its promise of endless possibility?

I pointed out to my friend that to young people today, such a fantasy is, in a sense, quite retro. The 1980s ideal of virtual reality, exemplified by Jaron Lanier interacting with imaginary worlds through his VPL goggles and cybergloves, was in fact a kind of technological successor to the 1960s fantasy of a drug induced utopia. Or, in the words of Marshall McLuhan as channeled by Timothy Leary: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Today the ideal of entering one’s own personal imaginary world has been passed over. Rather, the compelling vision for young people is now of a shared virtual world, a world in which people who are far apart can use technology to join together in a massively shared experience that is not constrained by mere geography or physics.

This concept of people coming together in cyberspace, of some advanced technology permitting geographically separated people to experience a group mind, did indeed exist in the fantasy world of STTNG. But back then it was seen as the very essence of corruption, of horror, of all that could go wrong in a world of technology run amok. It was technology as Destroyer, as bringer of soul-sucking spiritual death and mindless despair.

A difference in perspective which is reflected in word choices. For example, we now call such a concept “Social Networking”. Back then, they called it “The Borg”.

Shortly after noon today — at 12:12pm and 12 seconds to be precise — I took note of the time and engaged in a very human ritual: celebrating the arbitrary.

After all, there is nothing inherently special about today. This day just happens to fall on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year of the current century. All of these conventions — the numbering of day, month, and year — are themselves completely arbitrary conventions based on historical happenstance.

The same goes for the fact that we count twenty four hours in a day, and sixty minutes in an hour. The roots of that particular convention can be traced all the way back to ancient Babylonia.

It could be argued that the Babylonian system of counting in base sixty was indeed a very cool thing. After all, sixty is satisfyingly divisible by an impressive array of proper factors — 2,3,4,5,6,10,12,15 and 30 — but that doesn’t mean that there is anything inherently interesting about any of these choices, even if they have resulted in a day and time whose digits line up rather pleasingly. I mean, it’s not as though we’ve discovered some sort of cosmic slot machine.

Still, I took a little time today, at just a bit over twelve minutes past the noon hour, to mark the sheer coolness of the moment, however silly it may be.

Which I guess just makes me human. 🙂