Commercial shock

In recent years I’ve been watching all my television on Netflix. Which means it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen TV commercials.

This evening, visiting someone’s house, I found myself in a room where television is delivered with commercial interruptions. And I found myself going through some pretty extreme culture shock.

It’s not that TV commercials are loud. That part’s ok. It’s that they are so incredibly stupid. And I find myself wondering, is there some implicit assumption that we, the people presumably watching these commercials, are also stupid?

When you see TV ads without being used to them, the whole experience comes across as insulting and offensive. Although I could see, if you were to watch commercial television all the time, how you might develop an immunity.

And then, I suppose, maybe it would be ok.

Counting by twos

For many years now, certainly since I was about twelve years old, I have counted by twos in my head. It’s something I do without really thinking, so second nature that I don’t generally notice that I am doing it, like an earworm that one has lived with for decades.

I only count up to the first twenty powers of two, and for some reason I have no interest in anything beyond that. Maybe something in my mind just wants to get up to a million, and then says “Ok, that’s enough.”

It’s always the same sequence of course: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, 512288, 1048576.

I think this may be something my mind does to reduce anxiety. If I am stuck on a subway, or waiting at an appointment for someone who is late, I will find myself running up the powers of two.

That’s only a theory — I really don’t know for sure why my mind does this. But I can say from experience that it is quite relaxing.


I am thinking of conducting a scientific experiment. The general plan would be to track the varying states of messiness of my office and apartment, over the course of days, weeks, months and years, and correlate that result with my general state of productivity — or lack thereof.

This is a true scientific experiment because I genuinely don’t know what I will discover, although I have various hypotheses:

Hypothesis I: I am more productive when I am keeping things neat and tidy, because those are the times when I “have it all together”.

Hypothesis II: I am more productive when the place is total chaos because that is when my creative juices are flowing.

Hypothesis III: I am more productive when things are neat because those are the only times when I can actually find anything.

Hypothesis IV: I am more productive when everything is a mess because I throw myself into my work to compensate for feelings of mess-induced guilt.

I would like to think that Hypothesis I or II is the most accurate, but deep down I fear that Hypothesis III or IV might correlate better with the available data. ;-(


I have been having a great time watching Sense8 on Netflix. It’s a terrific concept for science fiction, and the way it is executed is very original and thought provoking, and often quite funny (at one point they even do a riff on classic Marx Brothers material).

I was curious to see what others thought, so I went to the comments section on IMDB. I was surprised to see a sort of war going on there. It seems that some of the commenters didn’t like it because, they said, it promotes an LGBT agenda.

I hadn’t noticed that, so I started watching more carefully. And I became a bit confused, because nowhere in the episodes I saw (I’ve watched about half of them so far), does anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or transexual ever denigrate or attempt to influence anyone else’s sexual orientation.

So I started wondering — what exactly constitutes an agenda? Is it simple existence? If I am black, am I promoting a black agenda? If I am Jewish, am I therefore promoting a Jewish agenda? If I am Italian, does that mean that I am promoting an Italian agenda?

And if that’s true, then what exactly would I need to do, as a black, Jewish or Italian person, to not be promoting a black or Jewish or Italian agenda?

Home key

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart has ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
    From wandering on a foreign strand?

— “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” Canto VI., Sir Walter Scott

I am realizing that it’s not just that I am glad to be home, after a glorious and wonderful trip abroad. It’s more that I find my mind returned to its fundamental key after wandering about the chromatic wilds of foreign lands and places.

As I write this I am listening to Yuja Wang play Prokofiev #2, which I suppose explains those three musical references. In any case, you get the idea.

Waking up in the morning, reading the Times, doing the Crossword, making that first coffee in my little Bialetti. These sound like mere rituals, yet apparently parts of my soul have become tangled up with them.

This is me at home, rather than me visiting, and it seems that those are not the same. No, not the same at all.

A Titanic plot twist

Today I departed my beloved Paris, betraying her for my one true love — New York City. To fill the time during the long journey home, I watched in-flight movies.

Appropriately enough, one of these films was The Titanic, which I had not watched since its original theatrical release. For those of you who have just arrived from another planet, this was the epic James Cameron movie, about the eponymous maritime disaster, that broke all box office records in 1997. It also happened to be about a voyage from Europe to NYC, which made it perfect viewing for the trip across the Atlantic.

The movie was actually quite a bit better than I remembered. This time around, knowing everything that was about to happen, I could really appreciate its extremely sturdy dramatic structure.

One short scene in particular — when the two young lovers run in slow motion through the fires of the boiler room in the bowels of the ship — jumped out at me in a way it hadn’t the first time around. At that moment Cameron is using purely cinematic language to raise the story of Rose and Jack to the level of myth, as though Dante had written sections of the Inferno as a RomCom.

But the thing that really struck me, just as it did the first time around, was how the two young lovers end up precipitating the tragedy. So in a sense, it was actually their fault that all those people died.

In particular, the ship’s look-out at first misses the approaching iceberg because he is having too much fun watching young Rose and Jack cavorting on the deck. Therefore he delays reporting the impending collision by crucial seconds, and the ship just misses turning away in time. The rest is history.

Do you think Cameron was deliberately making the two adorable young lovers the cause of the Titanic disaster? Or is that giving him too much credit for conceptual hijinks?

Holiday greetings

Many years ago I invited my friend Michael Ferraro to my parents’ house for Passover.

As you might have guessed from his family name, Michael isn’t Jewish. In fact, as it turned out, he was very happy to be asked, but he was also quite nervous about the whole thing, not knowing very much about Judaism. I think he was worried that he would say or do something wrong or inappropriate.

My parents, being very wonderful and loving people, didn’t care at all about his cultural orientation. They were just happy to meet a friend of mine and welcome him into their home.

When the day came, and Michael showed up at the house, my mother came to the door to ask him in, with my father just behind. I could see that Michael looked a little nervous, trying to think of just the right thing to say.

Finally, apparently groping for just the right words, he exclaimed “Good Lentils!”

My parents both cracked up. It was, I think, the funniest thing they had heard in a long time. From that moment on, they completely adored him, and the entire evening went very well.

Both sides now

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.

-Joni Mitchell

I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague this week about machine learning. Not about the specific algorithms and mathematics, but about the philosophy that makes ML tick — the general approach that makes it work as well as it does.

“Maching learning”, as some of you know, is an approach to heuristic algorithms (sometimes known by the sexier term “artificial intelligence”). When a problem is too difficult for a computer to solve by straight ahead computation, sometimes we resort to sneakier methods — approaches that try to look for shortcuts to a solution, and usually (but not always) find them.

What’s generally called “cloud computing” — looking at lots of examples of “things like this” by sifting through large amounts of data, and then using those examples to make better guesses about new things — makes heavy use of such shortcuts. For example, if you want your machine learning algorithm to recognize faces, you can “train” it by showing it lots of examples of photos “in the cloud” that somebody has already labeled as pictures of faces.

The conversation I had this week was about something a little more subtle: The fact that machine learning usually works because it uses information about big things to figure out something about small things, but also information about small things to figure out something about big things.

For example, early techniques for recognizing faces usually started by looking at a low resolution version of a picture and saying “hey, here’s a fuzzy blob that might be a face.” Then it looked at a higher resolution version of the same picture to check for things like eyes, nose and mouth in the proper place.

This didn’t work very well, because in a low res picture there are lots of fuzzy blobs that might be a face, but when you look more closely, most of them turn out not to be faces. Machine learning ups the game by going in both directions at once.

Not only does it look for faces, and check whether there are eyes and noses and mouths inside, but it simultaneously looks for smaller features like eyes, noses and mouths, and checks to see whether they are inside bigger features that look like faces.

The big power-up here is that we’re checking both “big to small” and “small to big”, looking in particular for connections that work in both directions.

It seems pretty simple when you put it like that. Yet this simple change in thinking has had a huge impact on our ability to use computers to recognize things.