Archive for September, 2017

The McCarthy comparison

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

The growing sense of paranoia in the United States has prompted me to read up on the McCarthy era. What, I find myself asking, is the proper comparison, if any, between McCarthyism and Trumpism?

And I find what I have learned to be oddly comforting. Joseph McCarthy, for a time, managed to create a mass hysteria that swept through all levels of both government and the secular economy. For a number of years, large numbers of Americans were the victims of devastating accusations made in secret — accusations that the accused were never permitted to see — with no legal recourse to defend themselves.

Under Trump, even while he is in power, roughly half of the nation mainly considers him to be an embarrassment. By those who do not support him, he is is perceived as ignorant, a grandstanding buffoon, a crudely misogynistic and xenophobic former Reality TV host attempting to reach far above his level of competence, vainly trying to impersonate someone he is not and never will be.

At the height of his power and influence, McCarthy was never seen as a buffoon. In this sense McCarthy was far more dangerous. For a time, our nation was largely united in the belief that his various political machinations represented objective reality.

It doesn’t look as though Trump is ever going to achieve anything like that level of support. For most voters, he is merely a perverse symptom of something gone wrong with our democratic process.

In a way this is comforting. Our nation once endured the ravages of McCarthyism, and many innocent lives were devastated. At this point, even as Trump holds some of the ostensible reigns of power, it doesn’t look as though he has the ability to create a similar distortion of reality beyond those in his loyal base.

Chocolate cake

Saturday, September 9th, 2017

Given all of the terrible events going on right now in the world, I find myself troubled by my desire to indulge in escapist entertainment. I’ve always watched such entertainment, yet right now there is something odd about the disjunction between what I am watching for fun and what I am learning from the News each day.

We are indeed a nation awash in escapist entertainment. We seem to have built our very economy around the desire to consume fantasy for fun. Entire industries have been built to serve this desire, and entire other industries have been built to serve those industries.

On balance, I think it is not the act of watching escapist entertainment that is the problem, but the way we might perform that act as a way to tune out the very serious events of the world. We all need to let off some steam — particularly in terrible times. The problem comes when we do so as a way of avoiding a difficult reality.

So I guess it’s all right, so long as we understand what we’re doing. Yes, it’s ok, from time to time, to eat that slice of chocolate cake. Just don’t start thinking that the chocolate cake is the meal.

Portable whisper gallery

Friday, September 8th, 2017

Today in the NYC subway I saw two young women sitting across from each other, trying to hold a conversation. With all the noise of the subway car, it didn’t look easy.

In not so many years from now, when everyone has wearables, that will no longer be a problem. You will be able to modulate your hearing, much as you will be able to modulate your vision.

You will be able to reduce ambient noise, enhancing the aural signal of whatever you happen to be looking at. In effect, you will have a kind of portable whisper gallery.

You will even be able to have subtitles across your vision, if you’d like. This would be particularly useful if your friend is speaking Chinese, and you don’t speak Chinese.

People from that time will look back on our own age in wonder, marveling at all of the basic capabilities that we don’t have. They will ask themselves “How did those people ever manage to get through a day?”

St. Martin

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

I am incredibly saddened by the devastation and loss suffered by so many during this recent rash of tropical storms and hurricanes. My heart sank upon hearing today about the 185 per hour winds that tore through St. Martin, and the horrific damage it caused.

We are so fragile on this planet, and every one of us is precious. All we can do is to look out for one another, and to remember that every human life is a wonder and a miracle upon this Earth.

The medium and the message

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

Marshall McLuhan has come up several times in my conversations this week with colleagues. I guess that’s not surprising, given his predictions about television as a post-content medium, and the large effect that such post-content media could have on society.

When I now read McLuhan’s theories, which once seemed so radical, I encounter something that feels like a documentary. We are indeed living in a time when the medium through which an argument is transmitted can have a greater impact than the logic of that argument.

I can see how this is true in my own work. For example, when you watch that video I posted here the other day, it’s very hard to tease apart a distinction between medium and message.

On the one hand, I seem to largely be giving a lecture about mathematical topics such as matrix transformations. Yet even though both my words and the visuals I present are focused on such topics, the video itself is about something else entirely.

Independent of any topic I speak about or show in that video, you know right away when you watch it that the real topic under discussion is actually the changing nature of media. This other layer of dialog between you and me is a clear example of what McLuhan was getting at: The medium is the message.

A shift in perception

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Usually when I go out of town I spend pretty much all of my time in a professional context. Either I’m participating in a workshop, or helping with demos at a conference, or giving a talk at a corporation that I’m hoping will fund our lab’s research.

This last trip, just ended, to Dublin, was also professionally related — I was serving as External Examiner for the Masters in Interactive Digital Media program at Trinity College. But I also took some time around the edges.

I traveled down the eastern coast of Ireland and walked the coastal trail from Greystones to Bray. I visited the lighthouse up in Howth and wandered through the ruins of thirteenth century castles in Dalkey.

Now that I am back in NY, life no longer seems to be all about the next meeting, the next deadline, the next item on my to-do list. Yes, all of those things are still there, but there’s something else.

I’m looking around NYC differently, viewing my surroundings with different eyes. Things here appear fresher and a bit more exciting, as though I am seeing them for the first time.

It seems that when you open yourself up to seeing new places, it creates a shift in your perception. Every place you go starts to attain a shimmer of newness and possibility. Even home.

I made this

Monday, September 4th, 2017

In my room at Trinity College in Dublin this week, I made this (click on image):


Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

You don’t really know what peacefulness is until it has been denied over a length of time. At the moment, I am reveling in this temporary feeling of peacefulness, this respite from absurdity.

For I am in Ireland, and that means I am not repeating the same damned conversation day after day. I have temporarily removed myself from the maelstrom of astonished outrage.

Yes, I realize that I will need to go back. I will need to continue to fight the good fight, to stand up for the values of respect for human dignity that America has usually embodied, values that it is now in danger of losing.

But right now, it really feels good to be in Ireland.

Unexpectedly shared sentiment

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

It seems that even in Dublin they agree…

Taking the blame

Friday, September 1st, 2017

I was wandering today through various towns south of Dublin, including Greystones, Bray and Dalkey. In Greystones I saw a sadly familiar sight. A once pristine beach had become a construction site, the future home of hotels that were soon to proliferate along the lovely coastline.

I guess it is a truism that when something delicate and beautiful becomes too well known, the act of discovery can turn into an existential threat. It’s a bit like Yogi Berra’s old joke about the restaurant: “Nobody ever goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

I remember many years ago walking along Ipanema beach with my Brazilian friend Luis Martins. As it happens, he had been good friends with the great Tom Jobim, the composer of The Girl from Ipanema.

We all know how that turned out. The iconic song by Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes created a tidal wave of international attention, which sent foreign visitors streaming into Rio de Janeiro. A once lovely and sleepy beach was transformed into a focus for international tourism.

Luis told me about a time when he and Tom Jobim were walking together along Ipanema beach. Jobim gestured at the endless row of huge and ugly hotels that towered over the oceanfront.

“Do you see all this?” he asked my friend, with a look of sadness. “This is all my fault.”