Archive for December, 2015

Zombie apocalypse

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Today a friend told me that her daughter, who goes to college not that far from San Bernardino, phoned her after the horrific terrorist attack there, to say she was extremely upset and frightened. Which is not surprising.

But something about that got me thinking about the event in question. In some ways it was like the also horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere. But it also felt like an act apart, different in some essential way.

Eventually I worked out why it felt different: This was a terrorist attack by people upon their own neighbors. The couple that perpetrated this act lived right next door to people who had no idea there was any danger. This act of madness and terror was not inflicted by terrorists outside the community, but by terrorists inside the community, who had been infected with a destructive apocalyptic ideology, as though by a virus.

One thing that I find frightening about all this is how much it feels like a zombie movie come to life. Your friends and neighbors become infected by the virus, which turns them into creatures that kill. In the process they seem to lose the essential sense of shared humanity that causes us to cherish human life, and to recognize what a terrible tragedy it is when that life is taken away.

I’ve always thought of “zombie apocalypse” as merely a way to describe a genre of fiction. I never thought, until now, that it would become an apt description of a real-world ideology.

Everything is relative

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

This evening, after a day-long professional meeting, I am dining out with the group at a traditional Brazilian restaurant, chosen by our host.

You might think this is not the optimal place for a vegan. All through the evening waiters bring skewer upon skewer of meat, as yet another piece is sliced off and deposit upon my colleagues’ plates.

On the other hand, the salad bar is amazing. :-)

Fate and the blog

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

I have been posting daily to this blog every day, without fail, since January 1 2008. I’ve managed to post from India, China, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, all sorts of locations in Europe, and somehow made it work. The number of posts have added up, by my count, to 2899, counting through yesterday.

Today was supposed to be my 2900th post. Because I needed to catch an evening flight, my plan was to take the A Train to JFK Airport, go through security, then write my post at the gate, while waiting for my departure. It’s a ritual I’ve followed many times before. Because I fly out of JFK all the time, I know just how long everything takes.

But I had become overconfident, and fate was not kind. Today the AirTrain was broken, so everybody had to take a shuttle bus, which takes much, much longer.

Once the bus finally arrived at the terminal, I raced to the departure level, whereupon a very nice man from JetBlue got me expedited through security. When I arrived at the gate they were just about to close the doors. I made it with no time to spare.

As the plane took off, I thought to myself that finally, after all this time, I had failed. Alas and alack, I had missed a day. Because this flight would not be touching down until hours after midnight NY time, my perfect streak was ended.

But then, to my surprise, the flight crew announced, after we were up in the air, that JetBlue now has free Wifi. Which I am using this very moment.

And so this blog continues, uninterrupted and undeterred. My odd little run of perfect attendance, quirky as it may be, lives on to see another day.

Think about it logically

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Continuing the theme from yesterday (sort of), let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Republican National Committee is wrong, and that ISIS is not performing horrific and brutal acts of mass murder around the world just to get gun control repealed in the U.S. So if that’s not it, then just what is it that people like that would want from the U.S.?

I’m sure they would be very disappointed in Obama’s recent speech. Instead of fiery rhetoric, calls for violent retaliation, and blaming all Muslims everywhere for the actions of a small band of extremists, our president is calling for careful steps and well coordinated multi-national response. Total buzzkill, right?

But from the perspective of ISIS leaders, there is one American politician who is doing everything right: Calling for immediate and violent military response, universal registration of Muslim Americans, and banning of travel by any Muslim to the United States.

I am speaking, of course, of Donald Trump.

From the perspective of an ISIS leader (as well as we can ever understand such a perspective) the Donald is perfect. He is giving them absolutely everything they want, on a silver platter. The eerie accuracy with which he says exactly what ISIS would most want an American politician to say is uncanny, breathtaking in its precision, eerily efficient in its potential for helping to encourage new recruits to join their insane cause.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that Donald Trump is working for ISIS. The alignment between his words and what ISIS wants American politicians to say is just that uncannily good.

But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I think he’s just incredibly stupid and irresponsible. Although I wouldn’t be completely surprised if it turned out that there was a hidden ISIS mind control device underneath the man’s hairpiece.

I mean, think about it logically: Why else would anybody wear something like that on their head?

Wow

Monday, December 7th, 2015

I figured something out that had been puzzling me, and the answer came as a surprise.

President Obama made a speech in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre. During that speech he called for everyone to keep cool heads and not respond by giving in to irrational fear and hatred. It seemed like a sensible, if obvious, thought: Let’s not give ISIS the very thing they want (and in fact, have been saying they want).

I didn’t understand why there was so much vitriolic dislike for the speech from the Republican party, until I actually read the official response of the Republican National Committee. It seems that they believe ISIS is murdering innocent citizens around the world in order to advance a very specific goal: Repeal of gun control in the United States.

I know that sounds crazy. Why would a radical theological sect bent on mass genocide care about our domestic policies half way around the world?

Apparently, according to the RNC, ISIS is killing people in order to goad the U.S. into taking away the rights of its citizens to bear arms. The RNC concludes its argument with these words: “To react by trying to limit the rights enshrined by our Constitution would be a terrible mistake.”

Wow.

Best meal

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

This evening I had dinner at Kajitsu, right here in Manhattan. I had not eaten there in years, and I had completely forgotten how amazing it is.

There are meals, and then there are gourmet meals, and then there is Kajitsu. All the food is in the traditional Japanese Shojin style — a unique cuisine that was first developed centuries ago by the Zen Buddhist monks in Kyoto.

A meal at Kajitsu is expensive, but it is completely worth it. There is really nothing that I could say here that would properly describe the experience. All I can say is that you should go there at least once in your life, and prepare to have your mind blown.

VR for mom

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Google Cardboard came with my mom’s New York Times several weeks ago. I happened to be visiting this weekend, so I helped her set it up. Soon she was excitedly looking around virtual worlds.

Of course this is perfectly emblematic. VR is now at the point where your mom might be using it. It’s interesting to trace how we got to this point.

In early 2012 a team at USC led by Mark Bolas created the first versions of what we now know as Google Cardboard. They gave it away for free as a set of do-it-yourself instructions. Total cost of materials: a few bucks.

The following year, Alex Kauffmann and others at Google who were inspired by the work of Mark’s team wanted more people to know about this cool device, so they adapted it, rebranding it as Google Cardboard. I suspect they were motivated to work on something fun and goofy as a kind of counterweight to the hype that at the time was surrounding Google Glass.

Now my mom is experiencing virtual reality. Maybe your mom is too, using hardware so cheap that the New York Times can just give it away. This one give-away might very well be having a larger initial impact on wide-spread adoption of VR than everything else going on in the space put together.

One odd thing is that few people seem to know this history. I’ve been told that a number of executives at Google itself even believe that the technology for Cardboard originated entirely within Google itself!

Hopefully people will eventually read an article about it in the New York Times. Maybe with a nice VR supplement.

Good day

Friday, December 4th, 2015

Every once in a while you have a really good day. A day when everything goes right, personally, professionally, emotionally.

Not a perfect day — there is actually no such thing as a perfect day — but a very very good day nonetheless. When the evening comes you feel balanced, centered, at peace, as though you’d spent the entire day walking through a field of four leaf clovers.

Today was such a day for me. I’m not expecting to have another one any time soon, although I would not complain if I did.

But I am going to mark this on my calendar, just a simple note to remind myself: Today I had a good day.

Us

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

I am involved in a number of projects at NYU that exhibit a real sense of group energy. That is, they are the result not of the efforts of some one individual, but of a mysterious alchemy between a group of people.

Sure, every once in a while somebody comes up with a spectacular idea — or makes a spectacular mistake — but those events are not essential. What is indeed essential is the cumuluative effect of so many people getting something done by handing the baton back and forth.

I love the way, in certain circumstances, we are able to seamlessly assume a group identity, a sot of collective mind that is neither me nor you, but us. This kind of connection can be one of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience.

Server farm

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Someone told me today that New York City has lots of big server farms. When you first walk into the lobby of these buildings, they look like anyplace else. But then you go up the elevator, and the entire building is filled with rows and rows of compute servers and giant refrigeration units.

Which makes perfect sense, except that when I first heard her say the words “server farm”, my mind jumped to someplace else entirely. I got a sudden fleeting yet vivid image of a place where they grow waiters.

But not just waiters. Busboys, maĆ®tre d’s, bartenders, barristas, cocktail waitresses and all the rest, neatly lined up in rows upon rows, carefully watered and tended to, gradually ripening until they are ready to be plucked and sent out to serve a waiting city.

I told my friend about this vision. “After all,” I said, “it’s not as though vast numbers of young people are thronging to Manhattan to wait on tables just because they want a career in acting.”

We discussed the importance of proper ripening. After all, you don’t want to send an unripe server out into the world. We’ve all had the experience of getting an unripe server. It isn’t pretty.

I wonder how many other phrases there are like this. If you have no idea what their real meaning is, you can come up with another meaning that is perfectly logical and plausible.

And maybe even accurate, in some alternate universe.