There’s the rub

At conversation this evening over dinner, the topic came up of what would be the most difficult human task for a computer / robot to be able to emulate.

One person suggested giving a massage. There ensued a lively discussion about the subtleties of this task, the need to accurately sense what someone else is feeling, just from minute shifts in their posture and muscle tension.

More than anything else, a good masseur or masseuse requires a sense of intuition, an ability to be in sync with another person, even though that other person is doing nothing but lying passively on a massage table.

But then we talked about it some more, and we realized that there is another task that humans are very good at, which would be a far more difficult thing for a computer to do properly than giving a massage.

And that is getting a massage.

Invisible walls

Everybody has invisible walls. It can take a while for us to see the walls that surround each other (if we ever do) because, well, the walls are invisible.

These walls are constructed out of whatever we were taught as little kids: Limits on what we can achieve, on the places that we allow ourselves to roam in our minds, on how well we can understand people who are different from ourselves.

One person might have invisible walls that make them think they are never supposed to be rich, while another person has walls that make them think they are never supposed to graduate from college. A third person might have walls telling them that it’s ok to love somebody, but only if that somebody doesn’t love them back.

I’m not saying that these walls are unbreakable. They are just very hard to break, for two reasons: (1) We can’t see them, so we might not even know they are there, and (2) When we try to break them, we feel an enormous stress, as though we are fighting with ourselves. Which, in a sense, we are.

It can take years of effort to break through our own invisible walls. Sometimes it can take us years even to learn that they are there. And sometimes we never even get that far.

It is easy to judge people by the invisible walls that began to hem them in from an early age. But I think a more accurate (if more difficult) way to judge someone is this:

First, try to understand what their invisible walls are, where those walls are located, and how high they are. Then, see how successfully that person manages to tear down those walls.

Keep your eyes on the road

Today, in a conversation about virtual reality, I told a colleague something I’d once read in a book: That the invention of the automobile was by itself not transformative. The real change happened some years later, when the local, state and federal governments began to systematically build paved roads.

Without suitable roads, early automobiles were just a bad second cousin to the horse. But with them, autos went far beyond horse drawn carriages, becoming a serious competitor to the mighty iron horse. The car beat out the train at its own high-tech game, by virtue of superior mobility and finer granularity.

We see this story repeated over and over again in technology. Apple timed the iPhone perfectly. As late as 2006 it would have been too early to introduce a Web based SmartPhone. But by mid-2007 the Web was mobile ready, and the iPhone rode it all the way to the bank.

One of the reasons the world took so much notice when Facebook purchased Oculus was that each represented complementary capabilities, and therefore their combination seemed potent. Another apparently perfect pairing of pathway and vehicle.

Only in this case, it isn’t clear which is the road and which is the car.

Closings, part 2

Continuing from yesterday…

Doesn’t it strike you that there is something wrong with the fact that we learn that our favorite neighborhood restaurant or bookstore is closing only after it is too late to do anything about it? Shouldn’t we at least be given an option to do something about it?

After all, if a community is anything, it is at the very least a group of people willing to join together in support of a common cause. And what could be a greater common cause than a shared component of our quality of life?

We live in the age of Kickstarter, IndieGogo and Razoo, when it seems perfectly natural for large numbers of people to band together and contribute financially to something they believe in.

So why the expectation that our favorite shop, bistro or purveyor of rare music is expected to simply take it on the chin when their rent goes up? I would have eagerly contributed money to help Gobo through some financial bumps if only I’d been asked.

Of course this is no panacea. Sometimes a place has problems that nobody can help them with. There could be a systematic inability for the business in question to pull in sufficient monthly revenue to cover their expenses. Or the owners may simply not have the requisite skills to properly manage a business. In those situations crowdfunding won’t save them.

But what about the cases when it’s just about getting over a temporary rough patch in cash flow? About keeping the doors open and making payroll until tourist or holiday season? Shouldn’t we, as a community, be able to pitch in and help keep our favorite places afloat?

Closings, part 1

There is something screwy about living in a city where shops and restaurants that are deeply loved, even worshipped, simply go out of business without warning.

These last months have seen the closing of so many places that I’ve thought of as personal mainstays, including The Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore, Shakespeare Books on Broadway, restaurants including Gobo, Soy and Sake, Pure Food and Wine, the Barnes and Noble on 6th Ave and 8th St., even Blatt Billiards — which had been in continuous operation since 1923 — and the list seems to lengthen every day.

It’s hard to know the reasons for the spate of closings. Rents are always going up in NYC, but I suspect the increase may have to do with the influx of high income money from around the world into the city, leading to a more rapid than usual increase in rents.

As was pointed out last year in The New York Times, in any city where the highest residential apartment in the Western Hemisphere has just been sold (the Penthouse at 432 Park Ave, for $95 million), real estate pressure is going to eventually trickle down to the other 99%.

But maybe it doesn’t need to be this way. More tomorrow.

Science fictions

Margaret Atwood has said that “Science Fiction” should more properly be called “Speculative Fiction”, and I tend to agree. My reasoning is that there is a disconnect between the iconography of SF and its true nature.

When we go to see a film like Interstellar, we are treated to checklist of visuals associated with science: Rocket ships, space suits, fancy looking machines, quantum physics, future timelines, black hole singularities, the list goes on.

But when you come out of the theater, you realize you have been treated to pure New Age mysticism. It all has something to do with the power of love to bend time lines and alter the quantum nature of the Universe. Which is all very lovely and inspiring, but really has nothing to do with science.

I mentioned this to a student today, saying that the presence of computers and other high-tech equipment in movie franchises like Star Trek and Iron Man could mislead people into thinking that they are about science. In fact, as far as anyone knows, humans traveling faster than light and inexhaustible power sources worn on one’s chest have no basis at all in reality. Like human time travel, they are pure speculation.

The student was indignant. He argued that these things could be true, and who was I to dictate that we know all there is to know about the Universe.

My counterargument was that Game of Thrones also has some very cool stuff, including flying dragons that breathe fire, contagious ice zombies and witches who give birth to murdering wraiths. Who’s to say that those things are impossible?

But just because they were cooked up in the human imagination, and we haven’t proven that there are no fire breathing dragons, doesn’t mean they are part of any meaningful scientific discourse.

An odd (and also entertaining) thing about most SF movies is that they dress themselves up in the clothing of science, yet actually have nothing to do with the reality of science.

Except of course for Galaxy Quest, which I believe we will one day discover was a documentary. 🙂

What’s in a name?

That biopic based on the Bard’s storied life?
I hear that Anne Hathaway’s cast as his wife.

And that film about Jesus? They say that no other
Than Madonna herself will be playing his mother.

For the movie they’re making of “Cocktails for Two”
Spike Jonze, so they say, is directing. Who knew?

The whole Kama Sutra translated? I’m certain
The hero was played by a young Richard Burton.

The world keeps on turning, yet things stay the same
At the end of the day, really, what’s in a name?

Mr. Nimoy

I wrestled with myself over the title of yesterday’s post. It was, after all, an odd way to pay tribute — honoring a real man by honoring a fictional creation.

So I guess it would be useful to talk about this contradiction, which I also touched on last week. I myself have had some experience with the strange nonlinearity between the reality of one’s creative work and the happenstance of how one’s work is received in the world.

Yesterday I quoted Don McLean, and that was a deliberate choice. You could say he is one of the prime examples of this phenomenon. The man is a great and prolific songwriter, yet he is primarily known for a single song he wrote well over forty years ago.

I think it’s mainly a question of timing. Every once in a while a person with particular talents happens to be standing precisely in the flow of where the culture is moving. That person may produce lots of other wonderful creations, but he or she ends up being associated with one creation in particular.

In the case of Leonard Nimoy, there is no question that he was a top notch and highly versatile actor, as well as a very talented (if somewhat reluctant) film director. Taken as a whole, his body of work showed remarkable diversity and consistent excellence.

Yet if he had not been standing in that particular spot in the cultural conversation, at the precise moment when a bolt of lightning was ready to strike through the center of that conversation, things would have turned out very differently. Yes, he would likely have been greatly respected for his work, but he wouldn’t have become an icon.

And that’s a strange burden to bear. It must be unnerving for Don McLean to get up on that concert stage knowing that a large percentage of the audience are hoping for him to play one particular song from decades ago. Or for Michael Nesmith, another great singer/songwriter, to realize that an entire generation sees him in an iconic role he walked away from nearly a lifetime ago.

Are these burdens or blessings? To Leonard Nimoy, was it more important to assert, over the many decades that followed his most famous role, that “I am Not Spock”, or that “I am Spock”? Both statements were equally true.

I think the important thing is that he always responded to his circumstance with grace and good humor, and that he continued to do great work to the very end of his life. And that, my friends, is the nearest anyone ever really gets to true greatness.

Mr. Spock

I waited a few days to write about the death of Leonard Nimoy because I wanted it to settle in my mind. The character he brought to such vivid life, who has existed for over half a century (“The Cage” was filmed in 1964), was, in my mind, a literal harbinger of the future.

We take it for granted these days that the powerful movers and shakers of our world are the brainiacs — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others like them — and that a thoughtful and nuanced author like Joss Whedon can write and direct a movie that dominates the box office.

But as Don McLean once said, that’s not how it used to be. American heroes have traditionally been the men who could use their guns and their fists, John Waynes, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas. And this was consistent with America’s identity up to the mid-80s, as the world’s leading industrial power.

But all of that changed with the rise of the modern cyber economy. The center of power shifted from possession of steel mills and automobile factories to the ability to support knowledge workers, to analyze data, to create and manage worlds of pure information.

Mr. Spock represented something very strange in 1966 — the dispassionate intellectual as heroic figure. To a nation raised on G.I. Joe and Superman, this was very nearly a contradiction in terms. Spock’s “super power” was, first and foremost, his ability to reason, to temper emotion with objective truth.

And the personality of that genius was not a bent toward evil, like Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor or Loki, nor the self-centered egotism of Tony Stark, but rather a gentle desire to serve the greater good, to prefer peace rather than war.

When I was young I was one of those brainiac kids. The aggressive one-upmanship that defines so much interaction between children didn’t make much sense to me. I liked to create, to read, to think about possible futures. And of course that made me weird, and sometimes picked on.

Mr. Spock was the first role model in my childhood who really spoke to the person I wanted to be. He wasn’t one of those bumbling absent minded professors played by Fred McMurray or Jerry Lewis, but a true hero, a man of action when needed, but mostly a dignified, thoughtful and steady figure, loyal and forthright, brilliant and insightful, powerful yet touchingly vulnerable.

Half a century on, we are living in an age when humans, in our better moments, are making the most of our most wondrous birthright — these fabulous brains of ours. Many wonderful minds are contributing to an economy that runs on information and cooperation, on discovery and intellect.

For real power comes not from mere armies but from reason and knowledge. Guns and missiles and stone clubs have power only to drag us down into darkness, but enlightened understanding can bring us to a better world.

Of all the figures of my childhood, Mr. Spock most embodied this spirit. I think Leonard Nimoy understood all of this, and that over the years he came to appreciate that being identified with such a powerful symbol of enlightenment and reason was a sacred trust. He lived a good and rich life, and he honored that trust.

He will be missed.