Sunday project

December 2nd, 2018

I am one of those weirdly old fashioned people who buys books. Not a few books — lots of books. I even read them.

The downside to this is that books tend to pile up in my apartment. I have far more books than bookshelf space.

I even have LPs and CDs — lots of LPs and CDs. Like I said, I’m old fashioned.

Needless to say, the LPs and CDs pile up right alongside the books. So I decided to do something about it.

Below is what my Sunday project looked like this morning. Just two neatly stacked boxes, containing the promise of organizational bliss.


By early afternoon those tidy packages had been replaced by something a lot messier, as I gradually worked my way through the instructions.


But by this evening, I was the proud possessor of a six foot wide, eight foot high organizational shelf, with two shelves for CDs, lots of room for LPs, and all the extra shelf space I need to show my books some respect. Plus a space underneath for clothes bins and more space up on top for knick knacks.


Before getting on with the business of organizing stuff, I am taking a day simply to admire my shiny new shelving. I just love the sheer potentialness of it.

Science fiction as time travel

December 1st, 2018

Last month I wrote a short SciFi story on this blog, as a tribute to Mary Shelley’s seminal 1818 masterpiece Frankenstein — arguably the first science fiction story. I tried to stay close to the literary conventions of Regency Era prose, while touching upon various science fiction themes from throughout these last 200 years.

Over the course of that process, I got to thinking about the nature of science fiction. Any SciFi story needs to incorporate science, but aside from that common premise, we see vast differences within the field.

The science fiction of any given era in history reflects the cultural preoccupations — the hopes and fears, if you will — of that era. Science fiction evolves as culture evolves.

I’m thinking it would be interesting to pick a different era in history — say, the 1950s — and construct a new science fiction story around the cultural preoccupations of that particular day and age. By taking us back to the mindset of an earlier era, such a story would itself be a kind of time machine.

And what could be more appropriate than that?

Dad’s advice

November 30th, 2018

I was talking with a friend today who was sharing with me his thoughts about career plans. He explained that he no longer felt satisfied with what he had been doing professionally for years.

It was a familiar tale. He had been doing the same sort of thing year after year, working with the same sort of people each time. He was now quite good at it, and his skills were much in demand.

But he told me that he no longer enjoyed his work as much has he had before, and he was thinking of making a change. So I shared with him a bit of wisdom.

It was something my dad had told me back when I was a teenager: “If you’re no longer learning anything in your job, then you are in the wrong job.”

At this point in the conversation a woman at the next table jumped into our conversation. “I overheard what you just said,” she told us excitedly, “and that was really great advice.”

“Yes,” I nodded proudly, “my father was a very wise man.”

Disney, Verizon and the New York Times

November 29th, 2018

Tonight I spent my evening in the company of three very interesting people. One represented the Walt Disney Company, another represented Verizon, and another was a reporter for the New York Times.

The conversation was fascinating, wide-ranging, deep and philosophical, roaming in many unexpected directions. Yet the entire time I was thinking: How can I combine the energies of Disney, Verizon, and the New York Times?

On the one hand you have content, on the other you have distribution, on the third you have our ground truth for reality. Are these mutually compatible? Or, when combined, do they create a fundamental contradiction, a rift in the fabric of reality itself?

In the end I decided that they were just really cool people to hang out with, and whatever happened would happen.

If ever I create a synthesis between these three powerful yet complementary forces, and find a way to bring them out into the world together, you will be the first to know.


November 28th, 2018

A good friend of mine is generally unable to talk about a certain resident of the White House without becoming completely enraged.

This friend of mine is usually a very pleasant fellow. He is extremely intelligent and very well read, and the two us can happily spend hours speaking about many cultural topics of mutual interest.

But when the conversation turns to you-know-who, my friend loses all composure, and becomes utterly irate. Engaging with him on the subject is like waving a red cape in front of an angry bull.

The irony here is that I pretty much agree with my friend, in political terms. The difference is that I don’t allow myself to become emotionally overcome, no matter how distasteful I find this particular topic.

I think my refusal to rage and fume is itself a political act. In my view we currently have a troll in the White House, one who thrives by finding ways to reduce his critics to sputtering outrage. Declining to play along is part of my strategy of opposition.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to work for everyone. I think that my friend, like a lot of other people these days, is showing symptoms of *-aholism. Feel free to replace the “*” in the previous sentence by whatever creepy political figure springs to mind.

For now the two of us have agreed simply not to discuss politics. To me that’s just common sense. After all, if you suspect your friend may be an alcoholic, it’s probably a good idea not to invite him out for a beer.

A flash of intuition — then you go to work

November 27th, 2018

I’ve been happily watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Many of my friends and family are watching it as well. At this point I think I would watch anything created by Amy Sherman Palladino.

There is one montage in the first season where the protagonist, a talented yet still budding comedienne, is observing everyday occurrences around her — in restaurants, on the subway, at dinner with her parents — and using those moments as seeds for jokes to put into her act.

We see, scene by scene, how she develops each such moment into a joke while performing for various audiences. The first few attempts fall flat, but then she figures out why the moment was funny, and how to turn that nugget of humor into a truly good joke.

It’s thrilling and delightful to see the process of creativity portrayed with such clarity. I also love Palladino’s underlying message about how creativity works.

It’s not all about some brilliant moment of intuition. Nor is it all about plodding away hour after hour. Yes, you need a flash of intuition — then you go to work.

Immersive media

November 26th, 2018

The other day I posted about the exceedingly weird encounter a friend and I recently had with 4DX technology. The entire experience was so absurdly wrong-headed that it would have made a great parody.

As it happens, that parody was already done, about 43 years ago. The sublimely silly 1975 film Kentucky Fried Movie contains a very funny scene eerily similar to our 4DX experience. The difference being that KFM was trying to be funny.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the theater scene from Kentucky Fried Movie.


November 25th, 2018

This weekend I read an article in the NY Times entitled A Vegetarian Reporter Explores a Hunting Dilemma. In order to get the story, the reporter went along on the hunt, but didn’t reveal that he was a vegetarian.

Which means, of course, that in order to blend in, he needed to eat meat while on the hunt. To help make sense of this, the reporter defines “vegetarian” as follows:

“I’ve been a vegetarian since college in what started as an experiment in healthier eating and morphed into concerns about the environmental impacts of a non-plant-based diet and a vague discomfort with killing animals. Mostly, this dietary habit stuck though I never lost my taste for meat; I succumb to the occasional pork chop and sometimes steal nibbles from my son’s morning bacon.”

To me this is a very interesting definition of the word “vegetarian”. It raises all sorts of fascinating questions.

For example, if you usually don’t eat people, but do indulge in the occasional meal of human flesh (say, in response to social pressure within your local cannibal community), can you legitimately claim that you are not a cannibal? According to this NY Times article, I think the answer would be yes.

Similarly, if you generally prefer to have sexual relations with adults, but do, when no grownups are available, indulge in the occasional act of fornication with small children, can you legitimately claim that you are not a pedophile? Again, according to the NY Times, the answer would be yes.

Who would have guessed that you could learn such fascinating and surprising things from the Newspaper of Record?

When entertainment technology goes wrong

November 24th, 2018

A friend and I recently went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. Since neither of us had ever seen a film in 4DX, we decided to try it.

I won’t talk too much about the movie itself, because that topic is way too complicated to fit into a single blog post. Although you might try to imagine someone honoring Steven Spielberg by making a very entertaining movie that is also highly antisemitic.

But the 4DX. Ohhh, that 4DX. It was so amazingly wrongheaded, it was truly epic. Every time there was a camera move with a dutch angle — even on intimate interior shots — our chairs tilted and swooped as though we were being chased by ravenous velociraptors.

We came to dread any camera move on screen, because the bumping and rumbling and shaking would take the whole audience right out of the movie. Air would blow pffft into our faces any time somebody opened a door, and for long stretches it was nearly impossible to pay attention to what was happening on screen.

But the piece de resistance was a touching scene in the rain between Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton. The scene, taken on its own, is tragic and lovely, and is meant to relate a wonderfully intimate moment of quiet acceptance.

But it takes place in the rain, you see. So when the first squirt of water spritzed into our faces, we started to giggle. Then the water kept coming, and coming. Several times I had to wipe off my glasses just to be able to see the screen.

There were these two actors, emoting their heads off in a tender bittersweet moment, and the whole audience was getting drenched and laughing uncontrollably.

I feel bad for not just for the actors, but for everyone who worked on that movie before the 4DX people got their hands on the experience. Yet I have to admit that it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever experienced in a movie theater.

Even if the humor was entirely unintentional.

Generative visual grammars

November 23rd, 2018

I am fascinated by the idea of visual languages that arise as generative grammars from an initial set of visual icons. There is a rough analogy to the way that natural languages can be described as generative grammars according to Chompskyan theory.


To give a simple example, here is the visual symbol for Mars:
icon1This is can be used to represent “male”.


And here is the visual symbol for Venus:
icon2This is can be used to represent “female”.


We can generatively combine these, to obtain a visual symbol containing both “male” and “female” parts:
icon3This can be used to represent “hermaphrodite”.


Finally, we can create a grammatical construct that consists of two males dominating a single female, to form a “devil’s triangle”:
icon4This can be used to represent Brett Kavanaugh.