Archive for May, 2019

The shoulders of giants

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

There is a theory that inventions are not actually the product of individual minds, but rather a manifestation of the zeitgeist. When it is the right time for an invention to appear, it will generally appear in multiple places at once.

There are many examples of this, the canonical one being the simultaneous invention of Calculus by both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Yet this phenomenon is not really such a mystery, if you think about it.

After all, human intelligence may be impressive, yet it is also bounded. The original and novel thoughts that arise from any one human mind are inevitably influenced by available knowledge.

At any given year in history, there is a certain shared base of available knowledge. In that sense, all would-be inventors are starting on a roughly equal footing.

After all, we wouldn’t expect advances in Quantum theory before anybody had discovered the atom. Similarly, we wouldn’t expect somebody to come up with the algorithms underlying Google search before the advent of the Web itself.

As Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Rhombic dodecahedral fun

Monday, May 20th, 2019

In my blog post today for the Future Reality Lab I sing the praises of rhombic dodecahedra. They really are quite fascinating shapes, beautiful, symmetric and full of surprises.

In that blog post I speak, in particular, to their interesting relationship with two far better known polyhedra — the octahedron and the humble cube.

But why take my word for it, when you can read about it for yourself?

The fire this time

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Reading through the news today, it all seems very dire
Slogging through the scandals you can feel the muck and mire
I realize I’m very likely preaching to the choir
It’s all so sad, it’s really bad, it’s quite the Trumpster fire

Corruption in the government, the stench is getting higher
A bunch of fools that act like tools in service of a liar
I realize I’m very likely preaching to the choir
It’s all so sad, it’s really bad, it’s quite the Trumpster fire

Every time I think that we have seen the thing entire
Something more comes through the door, the mind can tend to tire
I realize I’m very likely preaching to the choir
It’s all so sad, it’s really bad, it’s quite the Trumpster fire

Gentle with each other

Saturday, May 18th, 2019

Recently I’ve had some conflicts with friends. I guess that’s not unusual — to be human is to stumble into conflicts.

In every case except one, we managed to find a way to be gentle with each other, despite the conflicts. Somehow everyone kept their head and remembered that we are all imperfect, and that we all need to be kind and forgiving to one another.

The one exception — the friend who seemed to actually enjoy the act of inflicting hurtful wounds — still has me reeling. I don’t quite understand that side of human nature.

I realize that those of us who believe in forgiveness are at somewhat of a disadvantage. We don’t go for the killer blow, the decisive win.

Instead we look for some common ground. We find a way to allow the other to continue on in peace and dignity.

Sure, that philosophy can leave you vulnerable. But it’s worth it.

The wisdom of the Sun

Friday, May 17th, 2019

A long day of work
The Sun goes to sleep, and I
Follow its wise course


Thursday, May 16th, 2019

I definitely lean far toward the liberal side of the current U.S. political spectrum. Yet I have been disheartened recently by the intensity of much of the identity politics on the Left.

I had been finding it difficult to articulate my sense of dismay in analytic terms. But then this morning I came upon this great quote by Adam Gopnik:

“The idea that one should trace the source of an argument backward, to its origins, rather than play it forward to the evidence for its claims is the root doctrine of reaction.”

I think he gets it exactly right. Whether you are on the Left or the Right, you need to be able to justify your argument on its own merits.

As soon as we resort to disqualifying someone’s point of view simply because of their identity, we start down the road to fascism. Alas, both ends of the political spectrum in the U.S. are currently heading down this road.

Of course neither side thinks there is any problem with their own identity politics, because they believe they are on the correct side.

I wish we had a greater capacity in this country to truly listen to those with whom we disagree. I wish we were more willing do the work of expressing our differences through reasoned arguments.

Instead I am seeing reactionaries on both sides. When who somebody is starts to be considered more important than what they have to say, we are all in trouble.

A Vindication of the Rights of Doris

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

As it happens, I was rereading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman when I learned the sad news that Doris Day had passed away. Being a long time fan of Ms. Day, I had been disheartened over the years to see her turned into the poster child for a kind of retro view of womanhood, and even for oblivious white privilege (as in the recent Raoul Peck film about James Baldwin).

So I was pleasantly surprised today to read an opinion piece in the New York Times that gets it at least partly right. When you look honestly at the roles that Doris Day played in the 1950s, you start to see echoes of the philosophy of Wollstonecraft, who in 1792 put forth a robust intellectual framework for equality between the sexes.

Doris Day never played “the prize for the man to win”, that clichéd role to which women were largely relegated in 1950s U.S. cinema. Rather, her characters made it clear that the only sort of partnership that interested her was an equal one. And the way she played those parts always emphasized this point with friendly yet firm resolve.

The limited emotional vocabulary of 1950’s cinematic discourse translated this to labeling her characters as perpetual virgins. But if you read Wollstonecraft, you see these performances in a different light.

Wollstonecraft explains that patriarchal oppression works largely by reducing Women to an object of Men’s desire. Since this process of reduction takes the superficial form of a kind of courtly worship, the oppressed often does not realize that she is being reduced to an “other”.

In the end, the result of this flawed transaction is a view of women as decorative objects, rather than as primary actors in the larger stage of world events.

When you watch Doris Day’s films, you realize that she completely internalizes a resistance to this assumed transaction. With unfailing grace and aplomb, but with a hard-edged pragmatism just behind her friendly demeanor, she turns the tables on men who try to flatter her into believing she should be reduced to le deuxième sexe.

You could say Doris Day was ahead of her time. And as is usually the case when someone is ahead of her time, people did not understand what they were seeing.

Return to childhood

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

I was talking with a friend this evening about the fact that so many stories are about a return to childhood. Well, not exactly.

It’s more like they are about an adult being reminded that he or she had wisdom in childhood that has been lost or misplaced through the years. It is notable that so many stories have had this theme.

The engine of such stories is often a childhood character — one whom the protagonist has cast aside in the interest of “growing up”. This childhood character always turns out to be a magical creature.

Two notable recent examples include “Mary Poppins Returns” and “Christopher Robin”. And the canonical story with this theme is, of course Peter Pan.

There is probably something very primal at work here. After all, deep inside I think we all realize that there was something very important that we used to know when we were children.

If only we could remember what it was.

The better acronym

Monday, May 13th, 2019

Today I was sitting in on the final projects presentations of a virtual reality class. In the discussion afterward one of the students pointed out that there should be more examples of non-heteronormative VR.

I asked if that would be LGBTQVR. The student and everyone else laughed and nodded agreement. But then afterward I realized I was wrong, because I wasn’t being properly inclusive.

The more correct acronym, of course, is LGBTQXR.

A day of Shakespeare

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

Today was a general catch-up day for me. This weekend has created a valuable space between the random and peripatetic discoveries at last week’s conference and the intense focus I will need to get through the coming week of Spring semester finals.

So I spent a significant part of the day reading Shakespeare. This activity turns out to be a wonderful way to free the mind.

Just as a string of fugues by Bach will fill your head with countless melodies, the words of Shakespeare have the power to transport you far outside your normal path. The great beauty and inventiveness of language, the enormity of dramatic range, the sheer variety of voices, can all restore your faith in the possibilities of human genius.

We are living through a time when power seems to be in the hands of those who combine brutally aggression with embarrassing levels of stupidity. Now and then it is good to be reminded that we Humans, at our best, can be capable of so much more.