I’ve been thoroughly enjoying J.J. Abrams’ “reboot” of Star Trek. A friend and I just saw the second film over the weekend. It was a rollicking, schmaltzy, action packed space opera in the grand tradition, shamelessly pandering to the faithful. We loved it.

The entire premise of this reboot — placing familiar characters in an alternate universe — is deliciously ripe with possibilities. But these things must be handled delicately, or you hurt the spell (to quote one of my favorite movie characters).

There are definite constraints that must be respected. These constraints are neither physical nor technological — they are constraints of character. There is a certain mix of friendships, rivalries, conflicts and familial ties that constitute the core reality of any fiercely loved fictional place, be it Tara or Tardis, Pemberley or Sunnydale, Shire or Diagon Alley.

You can mess with plot and possibility all you want, and audiences will go there with you. But if you screw up the essential relationships, then no matter how blithely you throw around words like “alternate” or “reboot”, those audiences will turn on you in an instant.

I am happy to report that J.J. Abrams and company do not screw it up.

Life expectancy, extended

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post. As you may have suspected, my argument yesterday was a bit of a red herring. After all, living in Manhattan, I can see quite plainly that the non-drivers all around me do not, as a rule, become helpless alcoholics.

On the other hand, every Friday and Saturday evening, MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village is inundated by young women and men from nearby car cultures. They arrive by bus and by train, and they drink. And drink, and drink, and drink some more. There seems to be an entire “tourist” industry built around getting alcohol into these young out of town weekend visitors as fast as possible. At the end of the evening, they stagger back to their bus or train, and hopefully end up safely at home.

So I wonder — perhaps we here in Manhattan don’t tend to drink excessively precisely because it is all so easy. There is no air of forbidden fruit surrounding the consumption of alcohol. It’s always there, with no particular penalty for having that third drink. So we just don’t bother having that third drink.

Rob’s comment about legalizing marijuana resonates in more ways than one. After all, if a vice is legal and easily available, then there is no psychological — or theatrical — benefit to running out and abusing it.

Life expectancy

I happen to live in one of the relatively few places in the U.S. where you really don’t need a car. In fact, you don’t even need to know how to drive. Manhattanites tend to walk a lot, and for those places too far to walk, there is generally a convenient subway or bus at any hour of the day or night.

But most of America depends the automobile to get around. This is a source of one of the great contradictions of life in the U.S.A. You see, Americans like to drink, yet it is illegal in most places to get drunk and then try to drive home. The laws that limit alcohol consumption for drivers exist for a good reason: Automobile related deaths are a large and tragic statistic that our society continually struggles with.

In recent years Google has been funding an initiative that first came out of a DARPA initiative: To create an automobile that can drive itself. Technical progress has been remarkable, and some very smart people are predicting that within the next ten years our nation will switch over completely to self-driving automobiles.

This will immediately remove one of the terrors of our streets and highways — the death toll from drunk drivers. You would think that this is a good thing, right?

Well, hold on a minute. As soon as your car can take you home in whatever state of intoxication you find ourself, there will be no reason for people to hold back. You will be able to get as sloshed as you want, and you will still arrive home safely.

All across America, there may be millions of citizens who, whenever they go out for the evening, are currently making sure to keep their drinking in check — just because there is otherwise no legal and safe way to get back home.

But if you can drink to your heart’s content and still end up safe in your bed at the end of the night, many of those people will no longer have the same incentive to hold back. The total amount of drinking might increase by quite a bit.

And some people who, as a practical matter, are currently holding it together, might tip over to become full fledged alcoholics. The ravages of chronic alcohol abuse might cause those people to die sooner.

So it is conceivable — depending on the numbers — that self-driving cars might end up lowering average life expectancy in our country.

That would be sad.

Count your blessings

I was supposed to take a train this morning from Boston South Station to Manhattan. Which I was really looking forward to, because I love riding on trains.

Alas, I received an email saying that train service between Boston and NY had been cancelled, and suggesting that I find an alternate mode of transport. After much patient waiting, I got an actual AMTRAK operator on the line, who cheerfully refunded the cost of my ticket, but all she could tell me was that there was a problem with the tracks somewhere in Connecticut.

I looked around for alternatives, and all that was available was the Chinatown bus — so called because in NY City it deposits you in Chinatown. Did I mention I hate taking the bus? Well, I don’t like riding buses, but I especially dislike the Chinatown bus. You are essentially crammed into a tin can for four and a half hours.

This is in contrast to the glorious train, where you can get up, walk around, go to the Cafe car to get a snack, and in general have a nice relaxing time between your point of origin and your point of destination.

The entire bus ride, I was bemoaning my fate. Oh, why oh why couldn’t I have taken the train?

It was only after arriving in NY City that I heard the news: The “problem with the tracks” was two MetroNorth trains crashing into each other. About sixty people were injured — some of them critically.

I guess one takeaway here is that you should count your blessings.

A safe place

People who study how games are designed and played speak of the “magic circle”. They are referring to the safe place where a game is played. In the universe of the game, you and your friend might be pummeling each other in a fist fight, or sending opposing armies into battle, but you are doing it inside the magic circle — both players understand that none of this is real.

There is something similar at work when somebody tells you a story. You might be hearing the most tragic story in the world, yet you are able to enjoy the story without feeling fearful or nervous. You are safely inside the magic circle of fictional narrative.

I wonder whether it’s like that for education: Great teachers build a magic circle, within which students feel relaxed and safe and comfortable, and more receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking. Inside this magic circle — if it is properly constructed — learning flourishes.


I attended a discussion panel this evening at the National Academy of Sciences on the topic of how artists and scientists can work together.

Somebody asked “Should artists who want to work with scientists be required to be up on the latest technology?”

I immediately texted my colleague, who was sitting on the other side of the room, to say “Should scientists who want to work with artists be required to be able to quote Clement Greenberg?”

My colleague texted back the deeper point, identifying neatly what had really been bothering me (and him) about the entire discussion: “It’s interesting,” he wrote, “how the idea of having the artist and scientist in one body comes up so rarely in these things.”

I texted him back bemoaning the fact that there is no good word to describe such a person.

A few minutes later, a woman in the audience got up to the mike to speak about her research. She introduced herself as an “artist/scientist”.

Big foot

Today I was at a meeting where people with various kinds of expertise were gathered around a table to help figure out how we can use to use technology to better respond to disasters in cities.

We were discussing possible scenarios, and somebody suggested Hurricane Sandy. I said I was worried that this was too specific. “There are many different ways,” I said, “that something can put a big foot down on the city.”

Somehow this phrase stuck, and for the rest of the meeting people used the phrase “big foot disasters”.

In retrospect I realize that on some level I must have been thinking about Godzilla, although I didn’t realize it at the time. “Big foot disaster” is an oddly apt term, because it gets at the combination of insult and injury to a city that has been hit by any kind of assault just too big to shrug off.

Now all of these experts may very well continue to use that phrase. It might become part of the lexicon. I think I should be proud, but I’m not entirely sure.

Municipal power

I heard the most wonderful story today, from a colleague who works for a software company that helps optimize work flow.

He was telling us about this one time his company had developed a computer program to help a municipal power utility find the best route for its maintenance trucks. The general idea is that when a work crew goes out on the job, repairing and upgrading things around the city, choosing the optimal route through heavy traffic can save hours — and time is money.

One day he was showing the route his company’s software had calculated to the client’s road crew, when the foreman pointed at the screen and asked “Why does it say to turn left here? It’s a lot faster if we go right.”

He was surprised by the question. “You can’t go that way — it’s a one way street.”

He was even more surprised when they all started laughing. “Why is that funny?” he asked.

“You don’t get it,” the foreman explained, still laughing. “We’re the guys with the orange cones.”

The perfect gift

Three gifts I presented on this Mother’s Day,
Each one said something I wanted to say.

Each wrapped in paper, and sealed with tape,
All three were books of the same size and shape.

Yet all were quite different in subject and tone,
For each book was meant for one person alone.

One showed how Yiddish evolved by degrees,
The second, inventions by crazed Japanese.

The third described answers by students in school
That were all incorrect yet were funny and cool.

A few folks who know me, from those clues I’m sure
Will figure out just who each present was for.

And that, in a way, gets us right to the heart:
It’s important to know — to know right from the start —

That issues of wrapping, of size and of shape,
Are of no more import than the choice of Scotch tape.

In giving a gift those are not the core mission.
The key is that small spark of true recognition

Which is why when we shop so much time is involved
Until the true riddle of giving is solved:

To find that best gift, the best one by far,
That says: “I can see you; I love who you are.”