Sunday, February 27, 2011

Doctor Joan Who?

I had one of those dreams which are made of equal parts thought experiment and unconscious chaos. I imagined, or dreamed, of a well known woman in her early fifties. Let’s call her Joan. In this dream/ thought experiment I read a biography of her, which was, I must admit, so thick that I had expected more of it. The book was packed with tiny font type for nearly 1000 pages, but mainly it had nearly no personal details about what Joan was like. It was more a detailed and annotated account of her accomplishments, which is why despite its vastness; I could fill in the emotional blanks that the author left out. Since Joan is the invention of my imagination, I will not bore you with the same monotonous 1000 pages, but instead, just bullet points of a few milestones in her 52 year old life.

1.       Her Birth was not so exceptional, so I am not sure why I am including it, but she was born around the summer solstice of 1960, though that makes no difference to anything. Sorry.
2.       She learned to read at 3, and by the age of 5 had snuck a copy of that long Victor Hugo book about the history of world off of the shelf of her Francophile parents, and unlike even her parents, she read it, which was to shape her worldview by skewing it towards unrealistic dreams of empirical grandeur.
3.       At 6 she admitted to being able to read, but only “Ted and Jane” stories. Her parents quickly ordered a subscription to “Lisette”, which was a French children’s magazine, in French. Rather than going back to that long Hugo book to read in the original French rather than in translation, she chose the only French language book she could find in the living room, “Madame Bovary”. Why the author of the biography did not dig deeper into the long term psychological effects of numbers 2 and 3, I do not know.
4.    Her mathematical and musical abilities formed at around the same time, (also age 6) leading legions of unmathematical and unmusical people to make that tired argument, that music and math are the same thing, which I personally have never understood. This could of course be due to my own lack of ability to do either with the prodigiousness of Joan. Anyway, she played the usual Bach “Well Tempered Clavier”, but preferred to do improvisational deconstructions of Elvis Presley hit songs. Mathematically she learned arithmetic, but found it boring. She again sought out the library of her academic parents and found a book on linear algebra, where she succeeded in conquering  2 dimensional matrices nearly immediately, and moved on to the 3 dimensional variety, at this young age when most children didn’t even know there were 3 spatial dimensions. As a sidenote, but of relevance here, she later admitted that she did suspect even at that time that it was possible that there were other dimensions than the 3 spatial ones we were familiar with, but that they must be too small for us to see. This would mean that her mathematical intuition predated string theory by nearly 20 years, but who would have listened to such ramblings from a 6 year old?
5.    In high school, the enormity of her intellect was still mostly unknown, though she had shared it with one person, a boy, which the book only describes as average, but makes me (both the me of my dream, and the me reading the bio) suspicious, as I see no reason for an exceptional person such as Joan  to share her secret genius with an average person. As another sidenote this may be exactly what an exceptional person does which is why exceptional people are so hard to relate to, or so my thinking goes at this point in the biography, and actually at this point in this story.
6.       At age 21 Joan had the only extreme normal excess decadence recorded in all 1000 pages, which strikes me as strange for 2 reasons. First why she would be so normal as to celebrate such a common birthday with such a common thing as beer keg parties and shots of gin, but also because as my thinking goes, 21 wasn’t really 21 for Joan. I justify this as a calculation similar to the way people calculate dog years, though maybe not for the same reason. The dog year’s thing is depressing when you actually think about it. It is a way for children, and I guess all of us who love dogs, to justify their demise. Like that one year of the dog’s life was really worth 7 of ours. Which is also curious, as this would lead to me to wonder whether that means that it is actually the dog that is living the full life, as it takes us 7 years to do what we should be doing in 1 year.
7.       At age 21.5 Joan makes the major decision in her life which she is now famous for.  Famous is over stating it of course, but for which she is most well known amongst those who know of her at all. She decides that despite her deity like ability to do anything, she was going to use her skills in a place where it was most needed, and that was going to take her on a long journey across the ocean from her native Westchester County to London England. When in London she followed in a long history of European women of intellectual import, and changed her name to the masculine Georges, and though she was indeed in England she kept the French spelling in honor of her Francophile parents who were Stateside locked deeply  in the confines of tenure professorships, never to leave for the promised old world.
8.       Between the ages of 21.5 and 36 she went from hope to despair and back again, with a number of survival jobs, while she tried to find an approach to that ultimate release of her mind and body. Of her jobs, she was able to make enough of a living wage to move into a rather nice flat near Piccadilly Circus, by having a busker show where she calculated the day of the week each passerby was born on simply by knowing their birthdays.
9.       At the age of 36 she was finally approached by the BBC, for the very purpose she had emigrated for, and suffered all of those years. That is, she was asked to be a writer on the BBC show “Doctor Who”.
10.   Despite the 10 years between the old series and the new, Joan/Georges was able to use her “Doctor Who” knowledge and her own genius to predict everything from hurricane Katrina to the upset victory of the Red Sox in the 2003 World Series, though at the time, she kept this information in the confines of an anonymous blog,(yes predating the widespread use of blogs by 3 years) by the name of quantumfluxgirl. She is now happily back at work on the 6th season of the new series.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How I Came to Hate Oprah

I did something that even as contrarian and controversial as I can be at times, I was embarrassed by. I wrote a comment on a website that I like very much called Black Art In America, where I criticized a perfectly talented and well intentioned artist who had organized a commemorative book of art for Oprah Winfrey. I did this with the following comment, among others “Oprah succeeds based on a basic and I believe dangerous delusion that fame and riches (or even happiness) can be achieved through magical thinking, like that which is promoted from books like the "Secret". This is relevant to artists, as the success of an artist would appear to be in the sole power of the artists' thoughts. This discounts so much of the great art that has not made the artist rich and famous, or even happy. “

After being spanked by many members of the website community, and even my friends for insensitivity, I was asked by a very close friend if any of this has changed my mind on Oprah, and I had to reply no. What it has done though is to make me think about myself a bit more, not likely the goal of the creators of this book.  Would the sensitive Oprah crowd want to see a vehement Oprah hater turned into a narcissist? Though it is nothing to be proud of, that is indeed what has happened.

Oprah represents more to me than I think I have let on in my blogging blasts of her, or my family fights with my Oprah adoring mom around the Thanksgiving day table. It  actually goes back to high school for me, where like most adolescents, my ideas emerged from intuition into full fledged viewpoints. Oprah’s show was new when I was in high school, and though I am of a different generation than Oprah, her show was aiming in many ways to find its identity as I was aiming at discovering my own. I have looked through some of those early season topics and can understand why every day in the Winter (as the Fall and Spring I was going to Cross Country and Track Practice) I would curl up on the sofa and watch Oprah at 4:00. Titles like “Trouble Getting a Date?”, or more provocatively “Snobby, overbearing, or just plain hard to deal with...Rude, obnoxious people turn off their friends”. I had both of these issues as a teenager, as many teenagers do. To hear an adult have a serious forum to discuss those issues legitimized my anxieties. There is no wonder that my generation has helped to make Oprah a billionaire. She was there for us when we needed her.

In the Television business when a television drama has lost its original intention it is said to have “jumped the shark”. Examples of this can be seen everywhere from “House” dating Cutty, to “Chuck” hooking up with the pretty FBI girl. This is why HBO and Showtime remain so good. They never Jump the Shark. In the “Sopranos” Tony never leaves the mafia. In the “Wire” drug dealers still kill, and cops still get drunk and drive around town hurling Bourbon bottles from their cruisers. Oprah on the other hand was not happy with connecting to us anxious, but rather normal rational people. Instead she jumped the shark in the most flagrant of ways. She started moralizing. She grew a heart, but that heart was so bogged down by superstition, and a realization that her every word would be followed, that the show became a religion. The problem in my view came in 1998 when she made an announcement that she would de-tabloid  her show. This is not such a bad thing, but instead of de-tabloidization she created a new type of sensation, which I would call pseudoscientification.  Oprah became the equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard who went from writing sci-fi novels to founding Scientology. America followed her down that path, and they enriched her along the way. By 2000 she had fermented her spiritual quest, and that evangelism became the focus of her career. The Wall Street Journal called this effect" Oprahfication", and explained that Oprah had embraced a public form a therapy.

What I hadn’t realized is that what she also did but jumping the shark, is left the rest of us in a tank full of piranhas. She had perfected a type of TV, but when she left to become a cult icon, we were left first with Jerry Springer, and then a myriad of reality show hell. There was no room for a 16 year old sitting on the sofa listening to honest, and interesting people talk about not being able to get a date. Instead it is now Oprah telling the world how to find an elusive inner being. Or giving credit to that now proven fraudulent anti-vaccine movement. Or Oprah guiding a delusion of free will and personal success, while the viewers are growing in frustration with their own unresolved lives. Perhaps this is why I am so anti-Oprah. She has left a void where there was simple questioning of normal issues to a disaster of false hope and naivety. That said “Skins” did not exist on MTV when I was 16, so perhaps I would have had something to watch after all.

Thinking of Oprahfication as a new cultural norm has become an excuse for me, and by its very popularity made me an elitist. It is tempting to think that this was not the case.  Oprah programming of old was mainstream programming. Still it is not those early programs but the extremity of Oprah's success and popularity in the days since that separates me from large portions of American society. In fact, tracing my own personal development I can start in 1991 when Oprah had the dating, and fighting friends episodes and watch as my life has unfolded in direct opposition to hers. Of course she has become a billionaire, but that is only the most obvious of the divergences. The greater one is a move away from banality towards two opposing, yet strongly profound world views that separate my psyche from an Oprah psyche more than politics, class or even religion.

Aging is of course different for everyone, but the struggles of acknowledging physical limitations, and how we deal with illness and fear is what may be the biggest divide in the Oprah worldview, and in my own. Like most people I have faced sickness, and tragedy, to a greater extent than some, but to a much lesser extent than others, Oprah included, who suffered so greatly as a child that I can’t even fathom the pain and repercussions. Still, these sicknesses and anxieties have shaped me, as I am sure her suffering has her. The difference is that for her they have given her a belief that everyone has a power that extends beyond themselves. For me, I am everyday humbled by the opposite. I am humbled by the fact that I am powerless, yet still loved and alive. I don’t need an inner strength, or a strength from God. This is where Oprah’s world and mine differ. We both want to conquer fear and mortality, but I think that the only hope comes through physics and material action, she believes it comes from spiritual and supernatural strength. These views are so different that they are a line in the sand of existence, which Oprah herself has helped to draw, and I am happy to take my place on the other side.

I titled this blog, “How I came to hate Oprah”. This is meant to be provocative, and a little ridiculous. There is no reason for me to hate Oprah, and I don’t. She is clearly a deeply sensitive and caring person. Maybe a better title would have been “How I came to hate Oprahfication”, but that is too sociological, and not personal enough. So in retrospect I think the best title should be “How I came to know myself in the age of Oprah.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Designing my Epiphany

By Karen Starr
There is a design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is not recent news, as it has been a department since 1943, yet for some of us it has taken years to seamlessly move from VanGogh to Stickily. This for me is even the same within my own home, where I tend to nearly universally ignore design, while embracing art. I have contemporary art and Chagall, all on boring white walls, with a range of furniture bought from Ikea, Sears and Jennifer Convertibles. I don’t take pride in this, or even consider it a grand aesthetic choice. I like nice furniture, but for the price of that nice furniture I could buy a painting by a young artist that I admire. For me that choice has always been easy to make. When my long, long long time friend Karen Starr started her business, I began to change the way I thought. Suddenly it was possible for me to think about both design and art, without necessarily a compromise on either. I have done nothing about this, because I tend to over analyze the decision. Last week when I visited Hazel Tree, Karen's business, I had a bit of a catharsis in regards to design as not only an aesthetic choice, but also an environmental and sociological statement. Karen’s site explains this clearly so often that I must have been especially thick to not have recognized it’s point. I think though that it came, like so many things, from a convergence of momentary experiences.

I have worked for many years in industries that have questionable reputations. For instance I have worked with, and teach polymer technologies. That is plastics and rubber, which we all know have a detrimental impact on our environment. I have justified my involvement as I work on research and on instrumentation that can make these products better, and on educating students who can come up with newer and more sustainable ideas. At the same time I have rejected recycling as a useful solution for a world with too much plastic. I have said that small moves like recycling can do one of two things. They can make people feel like they are being productive, when they are really doing very little. This is not so terrible, but feels a bit like we as a society are lying to ourselves. The larger problem is when recycling actually does more harm than good, such as paper recycling in rural areas. The carbon footprint of the recycling process is larger than the that of using new paper. So knowing all of this, I have had to think of ways in which a future of polymer manufacturing, and new polymer products will result in a net gain for society, both in life style and environmentally.

After visiting Hazel Tree and after speaking extensively with Karen, I realized that our goals were not only similar in an abstract way, but even symbiotic. After all, furniture is made of materials, and the use of those materials is not insignificant. Karen has done something which is very different from recycling, which is reusing. I don't like antiques or old things in general, so I have not been attracted by them, even though they broadly fall into the category of reused. What Karen does is to re-imagine and revive while reusing. This is the type of system that benefits society and the environment and serves as an inspiration to me. Before long I will have a lab where we reuse old concepts and materials, and a house with redesigned,  and finally beautiful furniture.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Facing Eternity In San Francisco

Last night I was walking to a technology event in San Francisco, and being early and thirsty from a reckless run up and down Lombard Street, I found a pub to grab a beer. Though it was dark, I noticed an absolutely impossible not to notice character in the science world, Aubrey De Grey. De Grey has a beard which goes below the waste, making the fact that I wear Mickey Mouse socks and play the banjo look much less eccentric. I have written here before about De Grey, (The Jellyfish)and the philosophical struggle I have, which wavers between a desire to embrace his research to engineer immortality, or to brush it aside as harmful delusion. I introduced myself, and unsurprising he is a major intellect, who enjoys a pint and has an excellent sense of humor. When I told him how much I liked living in Paris, he said something which is insightful, but not usually pointed out which was “why did you like it? Certainly it wasn’t for the beer.” So within 20 minutes I was again thinking that it might be possible to live forever, even though we didn’t even talk about this.

The evening was intriguing, mind boggling, encouraging and the food was delicious. This was a group of 200 hundred or so Silicon Valley insiders who were there to talk about a range of foundations that are especially forward thinking, one of which was The SENS Foundation, which De Grey is a founder of. The noble pursuits of the group were on the border of science, economics and possibly science fiction, which is a place I am comfortable inhabiting. With all of the interesting people I talked to, I thought of every conversation through the lens of immortality, as represented by De Grey. Suddenly my reliance on quantitative data became a little less stringent than it usually is amongst scientists. All of the science presented was well researched and intelligent, but many of it exists just beyond the complete technological, or even mathematical grasp of our time. This is important I think. I write about feeling on the fringe of science and music, and the respect I have for the fringe. What I realized from this event is that some of the most successful and smart thinkers and entrepreneurs in the country are not so much on the fringe, but off of the table completely. In this frame of mind a singularity, nanobots and even living forever are technical challenges, not fantasies. For many of these people the science and technology fills the place in their lives that the combination of science and art fill in mine. So is a garage start-up mentality dedicated to eternal rejuvenation (or super humans, or nano robots) a way of dealing with existential dread, or more simply an act of the curious inventor? Are either of these more noble than the other? If an unexamined life is not worth living, does it mean that the search for immortality is examining life more or less? The film maker Darren Aronofsky made a film I liked very much called “The Fountain”.  When asked in an interview why he made this film about the search for the fountain of youth, set in the past, present, and a future in a floating bubble in space, he said that it was to show that at some point, regardless of how long we can live, humans need to come to terms with death. It is perhaps the greatest emotional and intellectual chasm I have; that I believe De Grey and Aronofsky at the same time.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Will Thinking in Pop Culture

I have felt pushed into a prison of disconnect with pop philosophy. This can lead down paths so promising, only to be destroyed by pseudo-science, superstition, and religiosity. Most obviously this is “The Secret”, that best seller of self delusion, and Deepak Chopka, the man most responsible for teaching the world the the words quantum mechanics, without having the slightest idea of what he is talking about. I know that I, and thousands of bloggers, make this complaint so often that we have become like street corner preachers, who are unheard even though they boom their voices through megaphones and amps. This blog however is not about this, but rather about signs that American culture may be as polarized as American politics. This is actually a relief to me, as I have not heard scientific reason applied to popular culture in any major way in a long time. The practitioners  of the movement I mention above I will refer to as the willful thinkers. They tie various unrelated elements in science, which they don’t understand, into a basic theory that puts free will in a more powerful place in society than it has ever been historically. Never before have people connected neuro-science, physics, and free -will in such broad ways as this. This type of self determination likely has some commercial motives, like convincing people to use a lot of credit on useless books, because they are capable of earning enough money to pay it back. Or it could be politically motivated in order that people feel they are never stuck in despair, but instead vote for candidates that promise that they will change things. It basically puts the responsibility for happiness and success on the individual by some spiritual connection with a universal energy. The reasoning goes that even if your individual energy is limited, your will can allow you access to a larger life force that can aid in success. This is a lot of science-like talk which really is just explaining free will the same way it is explained, rather unconvincingly to me, in the Bible.  

There are books that I consider rational alternatives to this thought, but they have significantly less readership. Just this week though I had two examples, one light of substance but entertaining, and the other much more profound. "Fringe" last week had this compelling plot line, where (in a parallel universe, but that is not so important) a man was on a drug trial designed to increase the intellectual range of very low IQ people. The trial worked better than expected, and this particular man ended up being hundreds of times more mentally capable than other humans. I know that already it seems hypocritical for me to blame the will thinkers for scientific faking, when the entirety of “Fringe” is so clearly unscientific. This is the case with this episode, as I don’t feel that there is a superpower capability of the human brain, but still this provided a nice metaphor on free will. The character was not only smart, but extremely proficient in probability, so much so that he could predict the future of events. In other words he understood the deterministic nature of existence and to connect the dots from the past and present out into the future.  This is more thought provoking than the average prime time sci-fi episode. It makes us think about a relevant question: how much information would we, or a computer, need to have in order to statistically know future events? That then leads to the question of whether, if such events can be mathematically predicted, there is any role for free-will.

The other deeper look at free-will, is the large, and brilliant new novel “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. It is  the story, through various perspectives, of a woman, a family and the the ideals of recent generations. There is too much here to talk about, other than to refer back to the title “Freedom” where we see Franzen’s characters forever unable to escape the past in order to create an independent future. They are, like all of us, trapped by causality, and therefore freedom itself alludes them.

It may be that the answers, such as will thinking, are the most satisfying, which is why they may always remain in society. That said, a slow enlightenment seems to have risen on the horizon of mainstream culture, at least enough to start making us all question what it means to be free.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Specializing in Everything

I read biographies too much perhaps. They tend to make me feel a bit inferior, but I always consider that the inspiration from reading about Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain or Joe Louis far outweighs the likelihood that I will not be a founder of the world’s largest democracy or win the heavy weight championship. It is not  unusual to be more admiring of historical heroes, as they are no longer around to let us down. In many ways it also makes me feel privileged to be living in a technological age that  many of these people, the three above included, were not lucky enough to be a part of. It would be difficult to invent aboard a ship crossing through pirate infested waters on the way to France as Franklin did, or write books without spell check like Twain, or box.. well that is pretty much the same as always. Where genius becomes more complicated in the modern world is not in the areas that can be aided by science and technology, but in the fields of science and technology themselves.

I decided to work for a Ph.D when I was 29 years old. I had already worked several different career type jobs, from producing plays, to managing sales and marketing for my parents business. Luckily for me that business was a technological one, where I was exposed to the exciting worlds of chemistry, physics and computer science. Exposure is nice, but when I mentioned to real scientists that I wanted to get a Ph.D. they were encouraging with a caveat. They said that in modern science it was important to be specialized, and I tended to be a rather scattered generalist. This was, and I think still is, the common wisdom, which is easy to understand if you look at academia. Knowledge in each small field has become so great that to know everything about a problem it takes years to learn.

The Noble prize winning neuroscientist Dr. Kandel when asked at a conference about how a young scientist should choose an area of research said that he should pick something that takes a lifetime to solve. This statement seems like a call for focus, and for specialization until I considered Kandel’s career. Kandel is in his seventies, working hard on a problem. It is true that he has been focused but that focus is on something extremely large; understanding memory. Kandel’s approach to this was to use theory, experiment and even Freudian psychoanalysis to get there. In other words he was a specialist of everything it means to be a thinking being.

Just looking at the faculty of Columbia alone I found another very well known example of the same type of contemporary specialization. Brian Greene, who the author of 3 best selling books, is a theoretical physicist who works in the highly specialized field of String Theory. While having lunch with a friend  of mine last month we both made a rather obvious realization about Brian and String Theorists in general. The goal of this science is to find a link between quantum mechanics and gravity. This is often called the theory of everything, as it would be truly fundamental in our understanding of the entire universe. So how specialized can it be to be working on everything?

All of this is to take a perspective on the biographies of my heroes from the past, and those innovators of today. Perhaps the advice to be specialized is both right and wrong. We need to be specialists on the big questions, because we have the time, the technology and the work of those geniuses of the past to help us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hair and Bass in an Age of Apathy

I just moved back to New York from France, and it is my 36th birthday. I say this because there is a mist of unconscious nostalgia permeating the air around me these last two weeks, which certainly influences the ideas in this blog. There is a natural result of being back in August in the States, and that is I am in my car more often going to work with partners and clients in nearby States. My European friends and family stay at beaches until the start of September. I was happy to discover that I could get XM Satellite radio in my car, which meant for me (so I thought) a chance to listen to NPR continuously, rather than surfing for new stations when between cities. I have done some of this, but listening to tales of the end of the IRAQ war for hours made me feel sad and old at the same time, which is difficult on a birthday. So I switched to music stations, and instead of listening to my favorite jazz and classical stations I listened to 80's metal and 80' rap. These stations must exist to transport people of my generation, and it has worked to do that. It has not really worked to get me out of the aging and moving funk though. The reason is that the music was so original. The contradictory crispness and saturation of Guns and Roses; the revolutionary, sad, yet hilarious raps of N.W.A. When this music came out I listened to it of course. I eventually was even a DJ and played a lot of it. The 80's and 90's were looked at as a musical cesspool, while a large portion of society looked backed to Beetles era rock, and Dylan protest music as the last throws of civil consciousness in popular culture. This made some sense, as my generation was more politically apathetic than the previous, and wars were only being fought in secret, leaving no official regime to fight. Also the economy appeared to be strong, at least as it was presented by Reagan and Bush I. Growing homelessness and the rampant spread of AIDS were mostly ignored by popular music. I feel nostalgia then not for a time of progress, but for a time where certain segments, like metal and rap, were innovating, and expressing not necessarily politically useful anger, but instead personal rage against loss, emptiness and marginalization. This made it perfect teenage music.

It seems now that perhaps contemporary serious jazz musicians and classical performers are revisiting some of this music, by deconstructing, reinterpreting, and in a sense calming the fire to find the remains of red hot embers. I have heard Vijay Iyer play M.I.A and Michael Jackson, I have heard Yaron Herman play Nirvana. I have heard Brad Mehldau play countless 80's and 90's rock, punk and rap classics his own way. The band Wake Up!, who I was proud to perform with last week, doesn't dissect directly but with full force refers to those genres , bringing us backward into the past and forward into the future at the same time. I am not sure if this is a nostalgic journey for them, but for me taking the morsels of interest from the past and finding a musically relevant voice for it gives us a history while influencing the present. This is not new of course, as Dvorak, Stravinsky, Chopin and Liszt all used folk music as a basis for the creating of a contemporary symphony. I guess the sad part is that the music of my youth is now the ruins of a time passed. It is a folk history of big hair bands with killer guitar solos, and bouncy cars with giant sub woofers. In other words, I am OLD.