Refrigerator points

Yesterday I was at a seminar where the topic included the way movies portray science. At one point an attendee asked whether there was any way to get Hollywood filmmakers to portray science more accurately.

One panelist, a physicist and educator who was speaking from long experience dealing with Hollywood, explained that filmmakers are focused only on creating a product, and by far the most valuable part of that product, from their perspective, is the storytelling. Everything is in service to that.

He said that the goal of Hollywood filmmakers is to make any concept, no matter how outrageous and implausible, just believable enough — in the context of the scene — that you will accept that concept while you are watching the movie.

If, later that evening, you are reaching for a snack in the refrigerator, and it suddenly occurs to you that something in the movie didn’t make any sense, then the filmmakers are happy, because that thought didn’t occur to you in the theatre.

In fact, he said, such plot points have their own technical term (a term which, until today, cannot be found by a Google search). They are referred in the biz as “refrigerator points”.

Self-deprecating humor fail

Yesterday, at a conference, I was talking with a colleague who is rather important in her field. A woman who was also clearly an important person, and also clearly deaf, came up to speak to my colleague, suggesting that their two organizations might work together.

Her interpreter was signing everything we said. I recognized him, because he had, for the previous hour, been up in front of the room signing for a plenary session of the conference. I told her that I thought he had done a marvelous job during that session.

The woman informed me, proudly, that her interpreter is able to sign fluently in seven different languages.

“Wow,” I replied enthusiastically, “that’s remarkable!” adding, in my best self-deprecating manner, that I, on the other hand, am still working on my English.

She then asked me, very politely, what my first language was.

“Oh,” I stammered weakly, realizing only too late that something had been lost in translation, “my first language is English.”

It makes me happy

I was having a conversation this morning with a colleague, and she said that she’d wanted to check with me before taking a particular decision, to make sure I’d be happy with it.

We then had a few tongue in cheek exchanges on the idea of making making other people happy, and soon I found myself saying the following sentence:

“It makes me happy that it makes you happy to make me happy to make you happy.”

And I realized that I meant every word. 🙂

Conservation of joy

There are some great songs based on happy emotions. “My Guy”, “My Girl” and “Good Day Sunshine” come immediately to mind.

But the list of such songs is easily overshadowed by the far longer songs that tell of pain and sadness, of happiness thwarted. These range from great recent songs like “Bad Romance”, “Rolling in the Deep”, to classics like “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Blues in the Night”.

Clearly, as I wrote in an earlier post, people everywhere enjoy hearing songs of sorrow and heartbreak. As several people pointed out in response to that post, the expression of such emotions can be cathartic, and therefore hearing sad songs can help us to deal with our own inner turmoil in a safe way.

It now occurs to me, as I see “Rolling in the Deep” stay atop the charts for so long, just as “Bad Romance” did before it, that there is a great net increase of happiness as these artists find powerful ways to express their own inner pain.

Perhaps there is some conservation principle at work here. Individual heartache can turn to art, and the diffusion of that art through the population creates a positive counterbalancing emotion within the larger society. Perhaps, on some level, what we are seeing here is an instinctive survival strategy on the part of our highly social species.

Mad wisdom

I was watching old episodes of Mad Men the other day, and came upon a scene that was unexpectedly moving.

It is 1964, and Don Draper, the slick shoot-from-the-hip ad man at the center of the show, is talking with a psychologist who also works in the advertising trade. She is trying to convince him to try her methods, which are based on psychologically modeling the customers. Our hero tells her, dismissively, that their approaches are just too different.

She replies that their methods are really not that dissimilar. “It comes down”, she says “to what we want versus what’s expected of us.”

This stops him cold — because he realizes she has just summed up his life.

And the audience realizes that on some level she is describing our lives as well.

Draper then pays her the ultimate compliment, at least in his terms. He tries, unsuccessfully, to get her to sleep with him.

A Parliament of Fowls

Curious about the origin of Valentine’s Day, I searched around the web. As near as I can tell, Geoffrey Chaucer is the major culprit. In his late fourteenth century poem “Parlement of Foules”, which is about a scholar dreaming of birds vying to choose a mate, Chaucer invents, out of whole cloth, an ancient legend of a special day for lovers. The appearance of this poem was, as far as scholars can tell, the first time that St. Valentine’s day, the 14th of February, was actually linked to the idea of being a day for lovers.

Not that any of this matters to modern love birds. After all, young love looks not to the past, but to the future.

In contrast to our memories of young love. But that is another topic entirely.

Color barrier

Since the sad and untimely death of Whitney Houston, many people have chimed in to speak of her talent, of the brilliance of her singing, of the influence she had on popular music.

But they all seem to have missed something more fundamental — the unique role she played in knocking down the color barrier. Yes, there were many beautiful and acclaimed black women entertainers before her in American history, transformative figures like Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Lena Horne, Nina Simone and Tina Turner.

But Whitney Houston did something no black woman in America before her had managed to do. When her first album and MTV videos burst upon the scene in 1985, she not only became the first female musician in history to debut at the top of the charts, she became something far more transformational.

Whitney Houston was the first black American woman that white males did not even think of in racial terms — they were too caught up in being in love with her. Just about every guy in America had a crush on her, and I’m sure most would have married her in a heartbeat if they’d been given the chance.

There are many measures by which one can measure our unsteady rise toward civilization. Surely this was one of the sweetest.


Today, February 12, is the birthday of many historically influential, famous or otherwise notable people.

Depending on your age and nationality, you may or may not recognize the names of some of today’s birthday celebrants, including Abraham Lincoln, Anna Pavlova, Arlen Specter, Arsenio Hall, Bill Russell, Charles Darwin, Charles Van Doren, Christina Ricci, Cliff DeYoung, Costa-Gavras, Cotton Mather, Darren Aronofsky, Forrest Tucker, Franco Zeffirelli, Heinrich Lenz, Josh Brolin, Judy Blume, Lorne Greene, Louis Renault, Omar Bradley, Peter Cooper, Ray Manzarek and Ray Kurzweil.

Sadly, only one of these people is going to live forever. 🙁

Revisiting Lost in Austen

I bit over two years ago I wrote within these pages about my first time watching Lost in Austen, Guy Andrews’ brilliant and pitch-perfect reboot of “Pride and Prejudice”. I am finding it to be even more gratifying upon second viewing, familiar as I now am with the fortuitous twists and turns of the plot.

I also find myself, for the moment, disposed to rejoice in the pleasurable cadences of Andrews’ recreation of Austen’s language, and the many and varied locutions by which the characters express themselves. It is indeed refreshing to visit, if only for the briefest of intervals, a period in the history of our fair English when even the most subtle indications of one’s inner thoughts were able to find expression in one’s words.

On the morrow, alas, I shall undoubtedly revert to our ruinous modern habit of abbreviated communication, of language stripped bare, of grievously monosyllabic utterances endlessly compromised by a sad reliance upon base cliché. Please forgive me, gentle readers, for allowing myself the pleasure, on this occasion, of indulging a rare and joyful celebration of our dear mother tongue, clothed in all her finery.

Eating your own dog food

In 1988 Paul Maritz, then a manager at Microsoft, coined the phrase “eating your own dog food” to describe the practice of using your products in your own work, not just selling those products to the customers.

It occurs to me that in computer graphics research we do this a lot. We don’t just use graphics techniques to make images and animations, we also use them to explain to other people how those techniques work. It’s a wonderful example of graphics as a meta-discipline (a discipline that can be used on itself).

For example, as part of my little game to teach reading, I needed the game to generate a bunch of sentences. I was on my way to a meeting to explain to somebody how this worked, when I realized I could just use computer graphics to pretty much do the explaining for me about how this is done.

If you click here to launch the Java applet, you see an example sentence. Moving your mouse around over the applet generates different sentences.

If you then click on the applet, an animated graphic shows up that explains how it’s done — as a kind of random MadLibs generator. Of course I could have just said “random MadLibs generator”, but (1) not everyone is familiar with MadLibs, and (2) the graphical representation makes it much more clear exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.