Taken with Taken

I’ve been watching Steven Spielberg’s 2002 mini-series “Taken”, ever since having recently stumbled across it on NetFlix. Somehow the existence of this miniseries had completely eluded me until now. Maybe because I don’t have a TV.

The wonderfully zany premise is that all the UFO stuff is true — Roswell, the abductions, the big Government cover-up — all of it. But with the following clever twist: It’s not treated as a big SciFi special effects extravaganza, but rather as a series of intimate small-scale stories of the generations of people whose lives have been affected by these events.

The confluence of these two opposite principles makes for wonderful fun. Take the most insanely ridiculous premise, and treat it with utmost seriousness in every way. No tongue-in-cheek self-referential winking (as in the X Files), or comic absurdity (as in Men in Black) or superhero wish-fulfilment fantasy (as in Green Lantern). Just straight carefully constructed human drama, focusing on families, relationships, human emotion, loneliness and connection, the everyday betrayals and small revelations that define character.

It all works spectacularly well as entertainment. And I find myself trying to think of another example of such a thing. An absolutely straight ahead serious and psychologically plausible treatment of a completely laughable premise.

So far I haven’t been able to think of any others.

Uses of GPS

I was in a car yesterday with my cousin, discussing how best to make use of a Global Positioning System. My cousin, who was driving, said that he liked to try to get places on his own. If he takes a wrong turn or finds himself getting lost, he can then turn on the GPS, and it will give him the advice he needs to get back on the right path.

I thought about my cousin’s philosophy for a bit, and then I told him, “I use a similar philosophy in my personal life, except that the GPS I end up turning to are my friends.”

Then, as we drove along, I thought about it a little longer, and I said: “Come to think of it, in my personal life I usually wait way too long before turning to the GPS.”

Snowclones considered harmful

To snowclone or not to snowclone, that is the question.

But what do I know? I’m a doctor, not a snowclone. Well actually, I’m not a snowclone, but I play one on TV.

Even so, I can tell you that the Eskimos have twenty words for snowclone. Snowclones are the new snowclone, and imitation is the sincerest form of snowclone.

Wait — is this a snowclone which I see before me? It is the snowclone from hell, not your father’s snowclone. It is the mother of all snowclones.

Oh where are the snowclones of yesteryear?

Now all the world’s a snowclone, so do not ask what your snowclone can do for you, but what you can do for your snowclone. For we are a snowclone nation, and it’s the snowclone, stupid.

I, for one, welcome our new snowclone overlords.


Today’s reading

Today a bunch of books arrived from Amazon. Some of them were very high toned, literary, informative — pretty much all over the map.

But I confess I spent the afternoon reading the book about the history of the 1960s phenomenon The Monkees. I picked the book up, expecting to read a few pages, and found myself completely gripped. Icouldn’t put it down until I was done.

There is something deeply sad and powerful about their story. Four talented young men caught up in a strange whirlwind that nobody quite understood, a whirlwind that end up tangling them up with the entire world. They were given the illusion that they owned the world, yet they all ended up becoming strangely captured and emprisoned by that very power.

Reading the story of these four lives over the forty five years, I found myself thinking of Gollum and the Ring. If there is a moral to their crazy tale, it might be this: Beware of a gift that seems to offer you everything. You might find that rather than you owning the gift, it ends up owning you.

Something old, something new

Today a group of us took a quick trip from NYC, spending the day at the MIT Media Lab to brainstorm with potential collaborators there on ideas for future interfaces.

Interestingly, the tools that were most useful for brainstorming were scribbling on whiteboards and scribbling on flip-charts. Unlike computer-based media, these old-fashioned “stupid” tools allowed us to freely sketch and draw any idea that came into our heads, instantaneously. These tools did not need any “model” of what we were talking about, because we all were building the model together in our heads.

I guess one take-away lesson here is that until we actually invent some better futuristic new media, the old ones are still the best. And maybe another lesson is that those future media may only improve things if they manage to retain some of the “stupid” (and therefore protean) qualities that make the old analog media so wonderfully flexible.

Time out

I read this week, in a NY Times profile of Dr. Arthur Horvich, about research by him and his colleagues in understanding a key protein in the human cell (as well as in the cells of other critters) called “Hot Spot Protein 60”, or HSP60 for short.

Proteins start out just as strings of amino acids. But in order to be useful in the cell, they need to fold into particular geometric shapes. Over half a century ago, Christian Anfinsen and others discovered that proteins, removed from a cell and isolated in test tubes, could still fold properly into their useful shape (work for which Anfinsen and his colleagues won the 1972 Nobel Prize in chemistry). Since then biochemists have widely assumed that proteins in the cell can fold properly without needing to be inside a cell.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way inside the cell. Many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, stem from proteins failing to fold properly. The cell is a crowded place, with lots of things going on at the same time. All that bustle and chemical activity can interfere with a protein’s ability to fold correctly.

HSP60, as Dr. Horvich and his colleagues eventually discovered, acts as a tiny barrel-shaped isolation chamber. A single protein enters one side of this barrel, and the barrel lid shuts for about 10 seconds, giving the protein the peace and quiet it needs to fold properly. The lid then opens, the protein drifts out, and another protein gets a chance to have its personal space.

What strikes me about this is what it says about the universality of the need to personal space, for a “time out”. Human lives are complicated. We are constantly bouncing off each other, jostling and jumbling around and interacting with other nearby humans. Sometimes, with all that activity going on, we can find ourselves bent out of shape. And then things don’t work so well.

Most of the time we get by just fine. But every once in a while, we each need to find our own little HSP60.


For some reason I recently remembered a long ago phone conversation I had once had with a friend, a few years after we had both left college. She had become a lawyer, and I had gone on to do research in computer graphics.

We were comparing our different career paths, and what they might mean. At some point she said “of course, one of us is doing something that is actually impacting the world.”

I remember thinking, upon hearing her say this, that she was being incredibly gracious by acknowledging that my work was so important. After all, unlike a trade (eg: being a lawyer) research can produce results that end up having a positive impact on the lives of millions of people.

It took me a while to realize that she had actually meant it the other way around.



Today I went to see Contagion, a movie about a run-away deadly virus, which was apparently the most popular film in the U.S. since it opened in theatres a few days ago. On an intellectual level, it seems odd that a film about something immensely tragic can be a source of entertainment. Particularly when you think about the timing of its release — a weekend of national mourning.

Yet it is entertaining. Steven Soderbergh really knows how to tell a story. The audience is caught up in the awful narrative, and barely has time to catch its breath before the next human drama, unexpected tragedy or nail-biting race against time.

I think the key is in the way fictional narrative is precisely opposite to reality. The problem with reality is that nothing really makes sense — things just happen, and we find ourselves desperately trying to write a narrative after the fact, in our attempt to explain the unexplainable.

Yet in a fictional narrative an author can use even the most calamitous events as a way to create the illusion of an ordered universe. A story may be filled with death and tragedy, but at the end of the story there is redemption. Not the kind of random little bits and pieces of saving grace that we are left with when real life throws things at us, but something else entirely.

In a fictional world, an author can build meaning into the very fabric of reality, into the arc of time itself. In particular, a well architected story can convey the sense that the choices we make matter, that people matter, that all of our struggles and attempts to connect have not been in vain.

Yes, there is suffering in these narratives, and sometimes great pain and loss. Yet thanks to the magic of storytelling, we walk out of the theatre having been given the one thing we crave most in life — a feeling that somehow, underneath it all, the universe makes sense.


A friend, who does not live in New York, told me today that she wanted to visit the newly opened World Trade Center Memorial (which I understand is very beautiful). She said she was surprised to discover that it is not publicly accessible.

Instead, a reservation system requires you to submit your name, address, phone number, email address, and so forth. She found this inherent compromise in civil liberties to be very sad. Her exact words: “It overlays the sadness with more sadness.”

I told her that it might be a kind of meta-memorial. The fact that you need to compromise civil liberties just to see the memorial is, in itself, an apt reminder of something precious that this country has lost in the last ten years.

Which, I suspect, was exactly her point.