Chemistry set

A first blog is like your first chemistry set, with all kinds of cool test tubes and little screw-top jars containing odd looking powders with funny names. Once you’ve set everything up in your parents’ basement, you can mix things any way you like. Put a little of this white powder into water and it turns bright blue, try the same thing with that yellow powder and a crystal starts to grow, right there in the Pyrex beaker!

When I start a blog post I don’t always know exactly what kinds of chemicals I’m mixing together. Two days ago I started talking about Persepolis and by the time I was done the post was fairly exploding with unresolved anger about the World Trade Center bombing. Here I was, thinking I was going to grow a nice crystal or maybe get a puff of smoke from my little mixture, and I ended up blowing up a shelf and half of the basement wall.

I imagine that some of you who’ve been reading this blog were not ready for the blast. When you first got to the site that day, you were probably thinking “hmm, I wonder what Ken’s cooking up in his laboratory today.” But rather than a cool little green flame over the bunsen burner, you ended up getting your eyebrows singed off. Well, sorry about that. I guess that’s how science works. I would just like to say to readers that I sincerely apologize for any and all missing eyebrows, and will promise to replace all singed articles of clothing and any cracked or broken eyeglass frames.

Now back to the lab. There’s this interesting mixture of sulfur and tartaric acid I’ve been meaning to try out…

Why did you do that in my dream?

Last night I had a dream in which a friend of mine did something surprising. So surprising that I awoke in the middle of the night, startled, and was left to lie in bed pondering the meaning of what I had just witnessed. If you have a dream in which a friend of yours does something that you don’t think she is likely to do in your waking life, is that entirely about you, or is it also in some way about your friend?

The question is worth asking because there is, presumably, some level on which the people near to us have insights into us, can see things about us that we ourselves are not ready to accept. That is one of the reasons we value our friends. So it’s not completely out of bounds to think that perhaps my subconscious perceptions, while freely associating, had seen into her subconscious motivations.

On the other hand, there is an element of projection in every relationship. It could be that I had witnessed nothing but an illusion, a shadow cast not by my friend’s true self but by my own internal beliefs and needs.

I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between. Maybe it will come to me in a dream.

When worlds collide

We are so used to the two worlds. One is the world we inhabit every day, where we wake up, brush our teeth, forget someone’s birthday, try to stretch a paycheck. The other world is the one we create through the sum total of our collective fantasies, where Superman flies, Harry earns his wand, and E.T. is the best friend a kid could ever want. Each of these two worlds operates by very specific rules, and there is an imperative, understood by all but the youngest children, to keep them separate.

I remember many years ago watching E.T. for the first time, and thinking about how unsympathetic was Peter Coyote’s character – the man with the keys, representing the shadowy forces of the government, who wants only to kill the alien and dissect it. We the audience felt so superior to that guy – we knew better, for E.T. was our friend.

But that’s because it was all happening in that other world. Suppose an E.T. had landed for real, in this world. We would suddenly need to deal with the possibility that the Alien, the unknown intruder, could do us harm. Wouldn’t we all be siding with that guy with the keys? Different world, different rules.

Last night I saw Persepolis, a sad and beautiful animated tale told from the point of view of a girl who was forced to witness the Iran she knew, an entire culture and way of life, be destroyed before her eyes, crushed out of existence by the twin pressures of war and revolution.

And I found myself thinking that perhaps one of the most disturbing things about war, in addition to the sudden loss of precious lives, real people gone in an instant, is the way it defies our reason by forcing the two worlds together. The unbelievable actually happens, walks right through your front door and sits down at your kitchen table. To me the truly moving thing about Persepolis is the way the main character gradually faces down that catastrophic rupture, seeks out and eventually finds a reality she can hold onto, regains her sanity and her life, despite all that she and her country have been through.

Maybe it’s not coincidence that fear of this collision between the ordinary and the fantastic has become a mainstay of modern horror stories. It used to be that horror stories took place in forbiddingly gothic settings, a blackened heath or an ancient crypt, the old abandoned house at the end of the lane with creaky doors and a certain dark cellar.

But in the last half century the horror story has relocated to the most prosaic of settings. Hence The Birds, Rosemary’s Baby, almost anything by Stephen King, Ringu. That creature from rotting nightmares, come to feed upon our deepest fears, now shows up in the middle of morning breakfast, toast and orange juice on the table, sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window, to the sound of the neighbor’s lawn mower ringing in our ears.

Maybe this trend, the popularity of post-gothic horror, has indeed been a response to modern warfare, to the way the bright shining future promised by science and enlightenment has a disturbing tendency to turn on its masters. Not just the atomic bomb, but so many of modernity’s bastard children. The way the Nazis looked so crisp in their designer uniforms, their methods clean and antiseptic, their engineering impeccable. The horror emerging from the ordinary.

One of the many horrifying aspects of the attack in New York in September of 2001 was that it had that quality whereby the ordinary – our comfortably familiar modern world – collides with the unbelievable. A horror story – something we would expect to see in a matinee with popcorn and the extra large coke – had crossed over, was really happening. And the horror wasn’t built from vampires and mummies, but from jetliners and skyscrapers, people at work in their business suits, an autumn morning in the most up to the minute and cosmopolitan of cities.

Suddenly that thick layer of protection, the safe distance of stories, the thing that lets us love E.T. because he is not real, or Harry Potter because we’re not really Muggles and there’s no such thing as Valdemort, was gone in a moment.

And so our nation went mad.

But not so much those of us who were actually there, who live here in New York. Yes, we grieved, we were psychologically wounded, we walked around for months like somebody had smacked each of us upside the head with a two by four. But at the same time we could smell that peculiar acrid odor hanging in the air every day for months, wafting up from downtown. Most of us knew somebody who had been lost, and there was nothing sensational or jingoistic about coming to grips with those deaths.

For us it seemed less like a monster out of some horror movie blundering off the screen than it must have seemed to the rest of the country. There were just so many small telling details, so much that tied it all back to real life, this street, that coffee shop. It was grim, but it was real.

My aunt was working across the street from the towers that morning. Two years later, after she’d had time to process the events of that day, she told us how she had heard the thud of the bodies as they fell around her. That was personal horror, the actual reality that has nothing to do with fantasy at all, the part they don’t talk about on TV.

New Yorkers could understand why “Ground Zero” became a tourist destination, but we had no interest in going there, taking pictures, trying to be part of it. It just made us sad, and mostly we wanted to stay out of the way of the people working to clear the debris.

And maybe that’s why, when the nation’s anger turned into a war against an oddly chosen enemy, when talk was rife with “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, we didn’t follow along. We didn’t need to try to save E.T. or kill Valdemort or find a war in order to restore our sanity. We didn’t need to rebuild a wall between the ordinary and the unbelievable.

It was, in fact, all too believable.

There was cake

Sally’s comment on yesterday’s post said:

“If it was a big birthday–like a MILESTONE birthday, you may have just witnessed someone’s personal freak out being performed.

Sounds strange. Was there cake? Was it good?”

Yes, it was indeed a milestone birthday. A very big one. And indeed there was cake, and it was extremely good, although nobody ate it. The absolute highlight of the evening, for me at least, was a performance piece by three of his friends. In “real time” they assembled a giant cake, formed it into the shape of an alligator, slathered on icing and otherwise decorated their masterpiece, then stuck in candles, while a recording was played of Cookie Monster and The Count happily singing “If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake.”

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to watch three grown people doing something so insane while that particular music is playing. But I can tell you it was a deliriously joyful thing to behold. And I can also tell you, from first hand experience, that when three of someone’s friends decide to help him to get through a milestone birthday by frantically assembling a giant alligator cake in front of more than a hundred astonished witnesses, all to the tune of a song from Sesame Street, there is a lot of love in the room.

Wagging the dog

I went to a birthday party last night. The man of the hour threw himself a huge bash and invited his many friends. He rented out a theatre and structured the evening as a variety show, with himself as Master of Ceremonies.

What was most fascinating to me about the occasion was how the birthday boy took to the stage and proceeded to perform, not as himself, but rather as a series of characters: First a late-night comedian, then a freakish quiz show host. He presented one sketch after another, each more outrageous than the one before.

And I found myself wondering whether I was witnessing some sort of cultural feedback loop, in which the emerging digital culture of personal invention is starting to redefine the world of flesh and blood.

Our culture is already moving beyond the make-believe “democracy” of American Idol. Media has become fragmented, decentralized. We are entering a time when the traditional content producers are losing control of the conversation, when each individual has become a potential point of broadcast. Consumers are becoming better at voting with their clicks, and the MySpace-driven rise to fame of a Lily Allen could become the rule rather than the exception.

The long tail is starting to wag the dog.

So I wonder, was I witnessing a glimmer of the future? In the age of YouTube, will more and more people assess their milestones, measure the worth of their lives, by an ability to create a persona, to transmit a virtual self?

The Heleniad, canto the second, part the first

Their talk was far-ranging, the rhythm was changing
And rhyme rearranging out there in the night

Their thoughts began drifting, for something was shifting
A curtain was lifting, a song taking flight

And so then she kissed him, and yes she did bind him
The wall was behind him and yes yes they said

This flower of the mountain, like the girls Andalusian
Perhaps an illusion, her lips were so red

Her arms were around him, her body imploring
The boy, now adoring, returned her caress

Say yes mountain flower and the wind somewhere blowing
Their hearts madly going and yes I will Yes.

Thought for the day

I just saw August: Osage County, the brilliant southern gothic comedy/drama by Tracy Letts. It was in turns elegaic, hysterically funny, tragic, manic, thrilling. By the end you really got the sense that human fates are determined by events set into motion long before, sometimes many years before.

As I was watching it, I started to wonder to what extent our sense of free will is an illusion, in the sense that we are formed by events outside of us. Perhaps our very motivations and desires have been set into motion by forces outside our control, and to that extent the very idea of “self” as an independent entity may be an illusion. As Schopenhauer once said: “A man can do whatever he wants, but he cannot want whatever he wants”.

I wonder how you would even get a handle on a question like this. Could you step outside your own values and desires sufficiently to question them, examine them? Would you even want to?

Maybe that’s the thought for the day.

Most Sincerely

Wow! The comments on yesterday’s blog were so thoughtful and interesting that I’ve decided to continue this thread for another day. The question I’d like to focus on today is this: What would indeed be a scientifically valid test to distinguish sincere emotion from merely the artful simulation of it through acting?

The first commenter points out that Ekman’s micromovements are not something of which the observer would be explicitly aware. It is plausible, but not at all certain, that one difference between a merely good actor and a great actor is that the latter is actually incorporating these subliminal micromovements into the performance. Detection of micromovements, together with correlative measurement of how convinced people were by a particular actor’s performance, could – and should – be incorporated into the testing protocol.

A later commenter points out that we humans may have a native ability to suss out the fake when we are in the same room with someone, perhaps through smell, that we don’t have when we are looking at a video. So today I’m going to talk about how one would go about testing for the ability to detect sincerity when there is a constraint that everyone is in the same room. Then this ability could subsequently be testing against our sincerity-detection abilities when looking at a video, through the use of a 2×2 study.

By the way, this same commenter also points out that the strength of a democratic system rests largely on its ability to function despite the fact that people cannot truly trust politicians. Point well taken!

This commenter’s first point, about things needing to happen in person, suggests a double-blind study involving two kinds of participants: (i) a volunteer questioner; (ii) a respondent who is either a volunteer an actor. The questioner is the test subject.

The questioner asks a fixed series of questions, and is not informed as to whether the respondent is answering sincerely or merely acting. First the questions are asked by one questioner of a sincere respondent. Then an actor who has viewed a recording and transcription of the first session is charged with trying to duplicate the “performance” of the sincere respondent. For this session a different questioner is given the same questions to ask. After each session, the questioner is asked whether he/she believes that the respondent was actually an actor.

This process is repeated over a number of different sessions, using different participants as questioners and different respondents. The protocol would measure for a systematic ability on the part of a population of questioners to accurately assess the true nature of their respondent.


The United States has been gripped again by presidential election fever, and millions of Americans are earnestly trying to determine which candidate has the sincere interests of the nation at heart. But this question of “sincerity” is tricky. A lot of people voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004 because he somehow seemed sincere.

But how did they know it wasn’t all just an act? How can you ever know whether a politician is sincere? Maybe a more general question is this: Do humans actually have a mechanism that can distinguish between true sincerity and the very artful fakery of it?

It wouldn’t be that difficult to scientifically determine the answer, but as far as I can tell, nobody has run the experiment. Here’s how one might go about it: Film a discussion between two people who are interacting in complete sincerity. It could be a boyfriend and girlfriend who’ve been asked to discuss their relationship, or a debate between two sports fans about who has the better team.

Then hire two good professional actors to replicate this scene. The actors’ goal is to convince you that they too are utterly sincere. And yet, of course they are not. The particular emotions, values, points of view that were deeply held and sincerely expressed by the original participants are utterly irrelevant to the actors. Emotionally they are invested only in creating a convincing external performance.

Now show films, under controlled conditions, of these two scenarios. Allow the observers to vote on which version is truly sincere and which is the artful fake. Let’s say that the outcome is that observers cannot tell the difference (or worse – that they are systematically more likely to believe the fake version to be real).

What significance might this have for politics? A key premise of Presidential politics in the U.S., as it is practiced today, is that you are voting for the individual. People do not primarily vote the resumé but rather the candidate, out of a sense that they have identified the person they can trust to lead the country.

Should the experiment show that true sincerity cannot be determined by a politician’s manner, arguably this would constitute proof that someone who runs on a platform of sincerity, such as George W. Bush, could just as easily be a completely cynical liar, a cold and calculating manipulator of his audience, up to some utterly self-serving end. Not only wouldn’t we know the difference, we couldn’t know the difference.

Maybe we should run the experiment and see.

Learning from children

When we use the word “language” we mean at least two different things. There are natural languages, such as English, French, Japanese and Greek, and then there are artificially designed languages, like programming languages such as C and Java. There is a big difference between the two.

For one thing, a natural language gets passed down (and evolved) by generations of people. It has to be “naturally learnable”, which means it has to be learnable by two year olds. Actually, little children have super powers: A kid will absorb language like a sponge, with no conscious effort – something most adults cannot do. But children can only perform this amazing feat with natural languages – a kid wouldn’t be able to pick up, say, Java programming in the same way.

Actually, children don’t just learn natural language. Linguist Ann Senghas and her colleagues have documented how a community of deaf children, in just a few generations, spontaneously evolved Nicaraguan Sign Language, a fully mature natural language, from disordered gesture fragments. By “fully mature” I mean that NSL, which has existed for only a few decades, is already as grammatically and linguistically mature and evolved as English, French, Japanese, Greek or any other natural language.

One reason I’m interested in this is that I’d like to explore the question of whether we could get children to build us a bridge between natural language and computer languages. Specifically, could we create an environment for a community of children in which their natural language creation abilities could be put to work to evolve a naturally learnable language that would also be understandable by a computer? Such a cross-over language might contain operations roughly equivalent to procedures, loops, variables and other elements of programming.

This is trickier than you might think. For one thing, programming languages are generally context free – every statement can be parsed in only one way, thereby making it possible for the computer to understand what we want it to do. In contrast, natural languages are context sensitive – even the very grammar of a sentence can be ambiguous and dependent on context. As Groucho Marx once said: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

If we can create an on-line environment for kids to play together, maybe a place where they can develop fun games, which allows them to evolve a context free language (so the computer software has a chance of understanding what’s going on) will the kids embrace that as a way of communicating, and will their spontaneous language generation skills kick in? I suspect we’ll have to help by designing a graphic user interface that always shows the kids what the computer is able to understand.

What’s the long term goal of all this? Well, if we’re successful, then the sort of people who do not think of themselves as computer programmers – in other words, almost everybody – will be able to grow up being able to tell computers to do things in ways that are now available only to the programmer priesthood. Maybe you could just tell your computer something like:

“Find me a jewelry box for under $200 from some store in my neighborhood that matches the color of my niece’s wedding dress, and put a deposit on it.”

I suspect that the way we’ll say this to a computer will look neither like English nor like today’s programming languages. It will be something new. I do believe that by making use of the language generation capabilities of children, we might be able to evolve an effective way for anybody to possess the power of programming without even thinking about it. Once an ordinary person can casually tell a computer what he/she wants it to do, imagine how that might transform the ways we use future generations of search tools like Google, on-line markets like Ebay, and social networks like Facebook.