Archive for April, 2017

The rights of coffee

Monday, April 10th, 2017

Yesterday morning, the first thought I had when I awoke was this: “There is such a thing as going too far. After all, there are things to consider beyond the rights of coffee.”

Actually, it wasn’t quite my first waking thought. It was more like my last dreaming thought. Apparently, I had been in the middle of a sentence during my last dream before awakening.

It was a fascinating peek inside a very different reality. Clearly the ostensibly absurd logic of dreams is something the dreamer takes very seriously.

It’s amazing to me, even after all these years, that these two parallel worlds can exist in our minds: Our (more or less) shared world of waking reality, and the wild anything-goes universe that each of us travels to every time we close our eyes for the night.

In the land of dreams, where anything is possible, even the rights of coffee can be a topic for debate. Not that I have anything against coffee.

Words matter

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

On July 31 1990, at an open session of the House International Relations Committee, U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton asked Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly whether the U.S. had a mutual defense pact with Kuwait. Cornered by such a direct question, Kelly had to give an accurate response: “We don’t have any defense treaty with the Gulf States.” Kelly went on to qualify his answer, pointing out that the U.S. expected disputes to be resolved by negotiation if possible.

But those words were enough to give Saddam Hussein the excuse he needed to invade Kuwait. Any failure in negotiation could now be interpreted as a “green light” for a military solution.

Saddam had been looking for such an excuse, given that Iraq owed Kuwait $18 billion, which it had no way of paying back (it’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the short form). Sure enough, one month later, right after the next round of financial negotiations failed, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

To Saddam’s surprise, the U.S. then went to war against Iraq in Kuwait’s defense. Sure, there was no defense treaty, but the U.S. still had plenty of reasons to defend Kuwait, one of its main economic allies in the region.

The current situation in Syria seems to have some of the same flavor. The Trump administration made a point recently of softening the U.S. position on Assad, presumably to distinguish itself from the previous administration.

As Sean Spicer described Trump’s policy in a late March news conference:

“With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept, The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities.”

Assad apparently interpreted that as a green light to resume his usual methods of keeping down an unruly populace. This included his horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians, to which the U.S. promptly responded with military force.

The lesson is clear: When you are the United States government, words matter, and you need to be careful what you say on the world stage. Megalomaniac dictators are eager for you to give them a “green light” to do their thing. And they are clearly not too smart about thinking through the consequences.

I’m very concerned about the way the current President tends to shoot from the hip, seemingly saying whatever comes into his head when it comes to foreign policy. Today’s world is a potentially explosive tinderbox, with lots of petty dictators just looking for an excuse to flex their muscles. If that tinderbox goes off, we are all in trouble.

Conversation starter

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

After Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor back in early February, “she persisted” became a rallying cry for many. My own first reaction was to make a T-shirt that said “#ShePersisted”.

My second thought was to realize that in the time I’d had that thought, people everywhere were already making those shirts. So I went on-line and bought one. It’s become one of my favorite T-shirts.

I happened to be wearing it on the train back from Boston to NY yesterday. I got several thumbs ups from women riding the train, but I didn’t see a single glimmer of recognition from any of the male riders.

The woman working behind the counter at the cafe car asked me what the shirt meant. I tried to think of a way to explain it that wouldn’t take too long, since I figured other people might start to show up in line behind me.

Then it occurred to me that there was a shortcut, since the woman I was talking to was black. So when I explained how Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Mitch McConnell for trying to read a letter aloud on the Senate floor, I pointed out that the letter was by Coretta Scott King.

That got my listener’s attention. Not only can a female Senator be silenced for doing something male senators do all the time, but the words of Coretta Scott King, of all people, can be considered unacceptable when read aloud.

It’s also interesting how the right T-shirt can serve as a conversation starter for important discussions among citizens.

National Academy of Inventors

Friday, April 7th, 2017

Last night I was inducted into the National Academy of Inventors. It was a wonderful affair, and it all took place at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, which I had never visited.

Coincidentally, our new NYU President, Andrew Hamilton, was also inducted into the NAI last night. So he and I got to hang out for a bit over dinner, something he and I rarely do back at work. :-)

To most people, it might be the case that a scientist is a scientist. It’s a kind of cultural type, like “athlete” or “musician”.

But inventors are an intriguing sub-branch of scientist. Whereas science, as a field, is generally focused on discovery — learning things about how the universe around us operates — inventors actively seek to put new things into that universe.

There is a certain practical mind-set, often accompanied by a privileging of practice over theory. The scientist in general tends to ask “How does reality work?”. The inventor asks “How can I make reality work differently?”

They are both important questions. But they are not the same.

Joe Harris

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

I was very sad to read this morning of the recent passing of Joe Harris — I have written about him before in these pages. Harris was the creator of the iconic “Trix are for kids” commercials, the woebegone canine superhero Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and other brilliant offerings which entertained and delighted kids everywhere, without patronizing them.

One creation of his in particular has helped to inspire my own work: The magical Three Dimensional Blackboard, or “3DBB”, that Phineas J. Whoopee, a friendly scientist, deployed in many episodes of Tennessee Tuxedo, to the delight of Tennessee, his pal Chumley, and millions of fascinated children who watched along.

Having seen these episodes as a child, I grew up with the firm conviction that we should all be able to draw our explanations in the air for each other, and be able to watch those explanations come to glorious life. Lo and behold, all these many years later, that is exactly what I am working on at NYU!

Series of interest

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Well, I finally blitzed my way through all five seasons of Person of Interest. For the last week, I was wondering why I was making that extra push to go through it so fast.

And then just today I realized why: Tomorrow I will see the friend who had recommended I see it in the first place, and now I will be able to discuss it in toto, the way one discusses a novel. Not coincidentally, my friend is a very talented writer.

For this was a show of ideas. Most TV shows turn out to be mere entertainment, and I often stop watching when I realize there is no meaningful thread running through them. But Person of Interest raised and then explored very serious questions about the relationships between technology, free will and responsibility, while wearing the thin disguise of a kind of shoot-em-up cop show.

There was definitely a strong whiff of fantasy about the underlying premise, particularly in its treatment of what is colloquially known as artificial intelligence. But that’s ok.

Like Ex Machina, or any decent science fiction for that matter, the fantasy version of technology on offer here is clearly not meant to be taken literally. Rather, it’s a metaphor, like time travel or a parallel universe, a literary device to help shine a light on the human condition.

And on that level the show works splendidly. Also, the ensemble acting is spot on. Even the dog turns in a pitch perfect performance.

My only regret is that now, having just finished it, I’m going to need to wait before I can see this series again. Not to worry though. I’ll just go back to watching Buffy the third time through. :-)

Present in the moment

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

Sadly, Gary Austin, the founder of the famed improv troupe The Groundlings, passed away this week. As a longtime admirer of his work, I read with great interest the thoughtful obituary in The New York Times.

There was one thing the obit quoted him as saying which really jumped out at me:

““My aim is to be totally present in the moment, and when I’m totally present in the moment I can do no wrong,” he said in 2015. “That’s a feeling I like to have, and I have it sometimes.”

That’s a very Buddhist way of looking at the world. Alas, I suspect it is very far from the way most people in “modern society” live their lives.

It strikes me now that every time you walk into a meeting with a SmartPhone in your pocket, and you keep your phone’s ringer or vibration mode switched on, you are doing the opposite of what he said. Some part of you is going to be absent from that meeting, even if your phone never rings.

I am an admirer of the related anthropological research of Applin and Fischer into PolySocial Reality. I wonder whether we should also be studying PolySocial Unreality.

Isn’t it amazing

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

I know for sure that I am living in a political bubble because every person I have any sort of political conversation with — and I do mean every person — thinks that the Trump administration is a scary combination of functionally insane, grossly incompetent and ethically corrupt.

This is particularly notable because a number of my friends and relatives tell me a different story. While they themselves share this view, they talk of conversations with friends or relatives of theirs, one step removed from me, who think that this administration is doing a fine job.

Politics aside, there is a part of my mind that is viewing this situation with a kind of astonished curiosity. My inner Mr. Spock wants to raise an eyebrow and say “Fascinating”.

How can grownups, who presumably are, for the most part, functionally sane, disagree so strongly with each other on something like this? Putting aside the particulars of the issue itself, isn’t it amazing that we are capable of such astonishingly extreme intellectual discord?


Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

For many years I have loved the word “provenance”. The first time I ever heard it, its meaning was clear from context, and it has given me a reassuring feeling ever since.

The provenance of any historical object (whether a book, a painting, or a piece of furniture) is the verifiable history of the chain of custody of that object. But I’ve also seen it used in slightly more abstract ways.

For example, we can talk about the provenance of a famous quote. Are we talking about the original quote by its proper author, or was its text or attribution altered somewhere along the way when nobody was paying attention?

I also like the way “provenance” sounds like “providence”. So there is that subtle association with the idea of a divine being or beings in a well-ordered Universe looking out for us. Reassuring indeed.

So I was delighted this week to see the following headline in an article in The New York Times: “Are These Artifacts Plundered or Proven?”

Aha, I thought, it turns out that the verb corresponding to “provenance” is “to prove”. An historical artifact has been “proven” if you can reliably trace its historical chain of custody.

The word “proven” is not used anywhere else in the Times article, but that one use makes the point. I guess it makes sense. I had just never noticed it before.

You learn something new every day!

Joint session

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

In a shocking reversal, Congress held a joint session today to move forward on removing Donald Trump from office. Representative Paul Ryan (R Wisconsin) and Chuck Schumer (D New York) issued a statement on behalf of the entire legislative branch, which in a rare show of solidarity voted unanimously to begin impeachment hearings.

“It’s not the influence peddling, the lying, the creepy Russian connection, the pussy grabbing, the Mexican wall nonsense, or even our President’s sheer inability to close a legislative deal,” explained Mr. Ryan at a hastily assembled press conference. “It’s the stupidity.”

In a moment that many found poignant and moving, Mr. Ryan admitted to having given in to a false sense of hope that the candidate who ran for election by posing as a narcissistic sociopath was not, in fact, a narcissistic sociopath.

“Alas, the time has come to reject ‘alternative facts’,” said Mr. Ryan sadly. “The man is simply out of his mind. We’re looking bad to our potential trade partners, China is about to corner the global clean energy market, and nobody knows what nutty thing the President is going to tweet next in his undies at five in the morning.”

Senator Schumer chimed in, “It is rare that our two parties can agree on anything these days. But we finally had to face the facts. This guy is a cuckoo bird.”

Both houses of congress will take a formal vote on the matter tomorrow. They would have voted today, but several legislators demurred, expressing a wish to respect the traditional moratorium on voting during April Fools Day.

Steve Bannon, who is widely respected in our nation’s capital for his ability to make Donald Trump walk and talk on command, was unavailable for comment.