Lesser of two evils

Yesterday I was discussing the Republican primary race with an old friend. We were both astonished and bemused that two such singular figures as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have become the leading GOP choices for leader of this country.

In describing to my friend my impression of such a contest, I found myself drawing, for inspiration, on popular culture: “It’s as though the Joker from Batman is running for President of the United States,” I said, “and to stop him, people are getting together to support Lord Voldemort.”

Powers of 2

Today is April 8. If you express it numerically, it’s 4/8 (or 8/4, in some parts of Europe).

My sister Joan was born on this day in in 1964. Which means that she was born on 4/8/64.

Even better, she was born at 4:44 in the morning. And that’s the time written on her birth certificate.

I called Joan this morning to wish her a happy birthday. This is, after all, a special date, since today is 4/8/16. How cool is that?

Contact lenses

I’ve been waiting on those contact lenses for years — the ones that act as both cameras and displays. Rumor has had it that Google has been working on such a technology, and that makes perfect sense.

Now it’s Samsung’s turn. There are even photos:

I find this to be both exhilarating and scary.

It’s exhilarating because it validates the prototype systems our lab at NYU has been building all these years to test out “future reality” scenarios where people can draw in the air and their drawings come to life. A world in which Harold and the Purple Crayon meets Harry Potter is getting closer to being our everyday reality.

It’s scary for exactly the same reason.

Not seeing things

We tend to think of virtual and augmented realities in terms of the power we can get by seeing things that are not really there. In the VR community there has been lots of buzz about all the exotic new objects, creatures and worlds we will soon be able to interact with.

Yet much of the power of our technologically enabled world comes from things we do not see — and that we do not wish to see: The electrical wires in the walls of our houses, the air conditioning ducts running between floors in our office buildings, the miles and miles of plumbing that allow us to magically turn on a kitchen tap and get running water.

We have come to expect so many things to be there for us: The gasoline in our service stations, the package from Amazon, the magazine on the rack at our local newsstand. For the most part the means of delivery for these things remain hidden from our sight.

Our everyday lives in the future, after we have transitioned to living in a visually virtualized world, will contain many more such invisible mechanisms. We won’t think about those mechanisms because we won’t ever see them, even if they are right there in the room with us.

Of course, anybody looking around that room with their naked eyes would see all sorts of odd machines running about, busily creating the world that most people will take for granted: The objects that float through the air into your hand when you gesture for them, the food that mysteriously materializes when you are hungry, and vanishes again when you no longer want it.

On the other hand, eventually it will probably become illegal for unauthorized individuals to walk around seeing the world with their naked eyes. Most people will probably wonder why anybody would ever want to.

Two versus three

We tend to see the world in terms of opposites: Black versus white, young versus old, good versus evil. Things are hot or cold, people are friends or enemies, Places are near or far.

It seems that for every word describing a property of the world, we have a corresponding word to describe its antithetis. It feels as though the entire world around us consists of opposing principles.

But maybe it’s just us. Perhaps the human brain has evolved to think of things in terms of twos. It’s something we do so naturally, so instinctively, that we can’t even catch ourselves doing it. Because of the way our brains are wired, we look around us and everywhere we see binary divisions.

One could imagine some intelligent species evolving differently — perhaps around a principle of threes. Such beings would look at the world around them and see everything divided into threes. For any word describing a property, they would have not one but two corresponding words describing complementary states.

Where we see black and white, they would, perhaps, always see black, gray and white. To discuss shade without always thinking of gray would to them be incomprehensible. And such shades of gray might be written into all of their thought and discourse. They might find it meaningless to discuss “good” or “evil” without reference to the state between those two extremes.

As you read this, it is possible that you might find such a way of thinking to be illogical. But maybe that says less about what is logical, and more about the limitations of our own human brain.

Do you know anyone…?

I was having dinner this evening with my brother, who is briefly passing through New York City. We were in a cozy restaurant on Carmine Street, engaged in a wide ranging conversation about a great variety of topics, including current politics.

At one point he asked “Do you know anyone…?”

I said “No, nobody that I know. Or at least nobody who will admit it. Not the people I work with, nor any of my friends. Some people I know, from other parts of the country, have family back home. But if I know anyone directly, they certainly haven’t said anything that would lead me to suspect.”

There was no need to elaborate.

Carnegie Hall

Every once in a while I go see something at Carnegie Hall. I love Carnegie Hall.

Not only is it visually lovely and perfectly proportioned the way a concert hall should be, but it has legendarily good acoustics. The sound from a trained singer or instrumentalist up on that stage can travel beautifully around the entire space, reaching the ears of all listeners.

Which is why I took special notice of the microphones up on stage today. They were used by people introducing the music, and that makes sense. After all, those people were just talking.

But they were also used to amplify the voices of the soloists, trained vocalists with magnificent and powerful voices. And that got me scratching my head.

Have we become so acclimated to a world where music is electronically amplified, that we can no longer listen to any other kind? Would modern audiences reject an unamplified operatic solo, in all of its naked glory, as somehow not sounding quite right?

I have nephews who would never think of watching an old black and white movie. After all, everybody knows that movies are supposed to be in color. Which means my nephews will never see Citizen Kane, Metropolis or The Seven Samurai, The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

Is unamplified music arriving at the same sad place?

The romantic view of programming

I was attending a panel recently on the topic of new media art that seemed to be culturally split. There were panelists who were talking about abstract concepts like “algorithm” as though these were arcane postmodern terms, full of mysterious power and potential menace.

Then there were panelists who just program every day to create their art. One of these panelists was trying to explain that an algorithm isn’t some mysterious force insidiously removing agency from humans.

Rather, she explained, a work of art can get complex, so it’s good for an artist to build and then use tools to do some of the low level manual work. This ability to delegate low level labor to computers frees up the artist to work at different levels — ideally levels that contain a richer opportunity for aesthetic expression.

This general idea is very familiar in other contexts. We don’t force writers to write everything out longhand, or sculptors to dig their own clay. They can if they want to, but that is their choice to make.

I found that everything this artist resonated strongly with me. To the people on the panel much of what she said seemed mysterious. Yet to me it all seemed sensible to the point of being obvious.

And it occurred to me that she and I are both what might from what might be called the romantic view of programming, as opposed to the modernist or post-modernist views of programming. People like us are very straightforward on the topic of art and creativity, and how we used computer programming to make our work.

We do not talk around the subject of art, and the tools used to create that art, as though it is some mysterious cultural construct. Instead we just roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to create our art.

When you look at the world in this way, “algorithm” isn’t a cultural concept to be deconstructed — it is a means toward the goal of creating beauty in the world. And if some software tool you need doesn’t exist, you build it.