Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nature's Intellectual Property

I just watched the Charlie Rose interview with Liv Ulmann and Kate Blanchett about the new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, playing at BAM in New York. Liv Ullman, a terrific actress herself, is the director of this play, and she said something that strangely applied to the rest of my days conversations. She spoke about that moment when observing an actor that you are directing, when the actor gets it exactly right. The moment is so moving that words cannot describe why it is so perfect. The director is left with a dilemma. Should she tell the actor that he or she got it right, and try to figure out why, or just leave it and be happy it is there? There is risk in both of these approaches. Speaking of it may intellectualize a purely instinctual and brilliant act of the subconscious mind. On the other hand, not speaking of it may mean that it was simply one moment, which may never again be repeated. I know what she is talking about, both from my days in theatre and now working in science. There is a sense of the complexity of inspiration that is humbly rooted in our knowledge of all we don’t know. Human psychology and character development are so deeply intertwined with life experience, theatrical experience, and character interpretation. There is this same thing that happens with invention, and can be equally as fragile.

There are different strongly held beliefs in how to handle intellectual property. Invention of a new technology is not entirely different from the process of bringing a character to life. Like the play, the invention is a unification of previous ideas. Views on how to handle these ideas have varied, and distinguished inventors have disagreed on whether the patent system is truly the best place for them to be revealed. There is an idea, that until the open source movement in software, seemed quant. Benjamin Franklin said after inventing the open stove; “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” This is a highly romantic ideal that has not been very practical. Even not for profit Universities and hospitals now routinely seek patents in order to finance further research. Patents actually do half of what Franklin was suggesting. They do allow others to make and understand the exact invention. They just can’t do it freely for 20 years. By the way, Thomas Jefferson agreed with Franklin on this account. Luckily for them they made their money in other ways, not relying on science and technology for an income. Most private inventors and corporations don’t have this benefit. There is another way that inventions are handled in modern society, which is through trade secrets. The concept of trade secrets is best known in the food and beverage industry. The secret formulas to Coca Cola or to KFC have been famously guarded. This is true though in nearly every product and process, even ones who have extremely strong patents. The truth about trade secrets may be much less brilliant, but more mysterious than a patent. I feel that in most cases a trade secret is something in a process that makes a product unique, even if the company or inventor doesn’t know what it is. I think that it is very possible that Coca Cola does have a secret recipe, but that the recipe by now must have made its way to competitors. The only explanation then on how Coke is still different is that something in the way they make it is different, so they keep making it the same way. This is not so much invention, but chance.

Nature works in similar ways to the trade secret method. There is no patent on trees or minerals. They have come into their present form through a process that worked to keep them intact. Recently while working here in Paris with a very renowned polymer chemist, we were discussing a strange natural phenomenon. For 75 years chemists have been able to create a synthetic rubber which has the exact same chemical structure as natural rubber that comes from the Hevea tree. This was a major development, but strangely when we look at the properties of the natural rubber and the equivalent synthetic, the results are different. With all of our technical and analytical knowledge, we don’t know why this is. For this reason Natural Rubber is still used for many applications. When I was discussing this with my father, he suggested that this was somehow natures “trade secret”. He is right. There is something that for the last billion or so years has been refined to create the latex that is so unique. Nature is not an intelligent being, so likely it does not know why. It just happened, and continues to happen the same way over and over. The same thing is true of silicon, which has a near perfect structure. We would love to create something this perfect in a lab, but we haven’t had the billions of years of trial and error yet. I think with the prototype to evaluate, we should be able to do it faster.

This brings me back to the actors, to instinct and to chance innovation. Perhaps most of what we do is about freezing a process on stage, in a factory or in a lab at the exact right moment. It is also possible that this ability to know when and how to do this is what makes great directors, inventors and companies.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless.

Thomas A. Edison

If you are an experimental scientist, your days are likely to be either incredibly frustrating, or incredibly exhilarating. Actually for many of us this oscillation of emotions is the natural bipolar state of the work that we are driven to do. Everyone has a slightly unique process for experimentation. I tend to start with improvisation, while other, more organized scientists begin by systematic preparation. An improvisation is by its nature different than an experiment. It is more like psychoanalysis, with free association of ideas, without any conscious direction. I remember this being called brain storming in business and school meetings. For me an improvisation can clear my mind, so that I can see what is already in front of me, rather than be trapped by outside thoughts. As I said though, this is not really an experiment. An experiment requires more than improvisation, it requires an idea, or hypothesis, so that a proper test, and set of testing conditions can be designed. In cases like the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN labs in Switzerland, 15 years have been spent preparing for experiments. One of the key experiments at LHC has been sculpted by the world’s leading physicists over much of this time. The Hypothesis is that a unique particle, called the Higgs Boson, can be detected by colliding protons at high energies near the speed of light. Most physicists expect this particle, called by many the “god particle”, to be detected, confirming one of the 20th century’s most famous, yet improvable theories in particle physics. This is what is generally thought of as experimentation. At the 2009 Origins Conference in Arizona, two physicists Laurence Krauss and Brian Greene talked of an even more rewarding, or exciting possibility. Dr. Green said “what would be even better than finding the Higgs at the LHC, is not finding it. It would show all of us that there is something else to be discovered. Of course this wouldn’t be good for financing another large experiment like this.”

Greene was on to something that is generally misunderstood about scientists. Even when an experiment is well planned, and a hypothesis well formulated, we are even more enthralled by the possibility that the experiment leads us to entirely new places. The reason for this is that we trust that nature is inherently more interesting than we can first imagine.

Small technology companies are no less of an experiment than one run in a lab. Like the scientist in the lab, the entrepreneur is putting all of his mental capabilities into a hypothesis, believing that his idea is of value. The good entrepreneur, like the good scientist, is even more moved by the idea which he didn’t have. In other words when the experiment of trying an idea fails, he assumes that it must mean that there is an even better solution. This can make for difficult days, quarters and years, but ultimately the openness to reinterpret the experiment can lead to more beautiful places than the original design.

One area of the start-up which is often misrepresented, or at least not thought of in this light, is staffing. When I was a theatre director I was given a common piece of advice which is that “90% of the director’s job is casting.” This is true of course for directing and hiring engineers, but it is not as rigid as might be implied. When the director Mike Nichols hired Dustin Hoffman for “The Graduate” his choice was mocked throughout Hollywood. Hoffman was too old, to small and too Jewish. The role of Benjamin Bradick should have been given to Robert Redford, by all of the loose metrics of casting wisdom. Nichols was participating in an expensive Hollywood experiment, and one that ultimately paid off with one of the most successful films of its era. In hindsight Nichols is seen as a genius for this decision. When asked about it though, he doesn’t see it this way. He claims that the reason for choosing Hoffman was not based on an imagined box office success, but rather just because he thought Hoffman was good. He chose to experiment on Hoffman, not knowing for certain how he would fit in the role, but believing him to be a good enough actor that somehow he would.

“The Graduate” casting example is exactly what plays itself out when hiring the first few engineers in a company, and probably everyone after that. Sometimes it is not always best to hire the MIT Ph.D. with a specialty in your field. Sometimes that is like casting Robert Redford in “The Graduate”. It would work probably, but it might not be as inventive as you would like. There was also one other small advantage to the casting of Dustin Hoffman, which at first may seem like a compromise. Hoffman was an unknown, and was not as expensive as Redford. I don’t think this was Nichols reason for casting him, but in the end it didn’t hurt either. Because the production was under budget in casting, they were able to reallocate some of that money towards the scenery, which included the famous modern and post modern monochrome homes of the Bradicks and the Robinsons. It also didn’t hurt Hoffman, as he is now one of Hollywood’s top paid actors.

The early years of Tech Pro were much leaner than “The Graduate” pre-production days, but there were some similarities. My parents were looking at doing something that shouldn’t have been able to be done with a small amount of investment capital. They were trying to open a software, and hardware company to create completely new technologies, in order to compete with Monsanto, which was at the time a Fortune 50 company. Although it is obvious that this experiment was a risky one, and that there would be challenges, the challenge of hiring seemed easily approached by following common business wisdom: if a company has only a few dollars, at least those dollars should go to the obviously most qualified person. But, what if there aren’t even enough dollars to work with, or if it means changing your financing model in order to raise additional funds?

The story of Jeff

The summer of 1985 was a period of transition for Tech Pro. The company itself was experimenting through improvisation and hypothesis, starting as a garage refurbishing shop. That is really all it was. My Father had worked in Akron, the rubber capital of the world (at least then), in many areas of the industry, from manufacturing rubber, to working in a testing lab, to working for Monsanto, who made testing instrumentation. During this time period Monsanto had a near monopoly on a type of instrumentation called rheometers, which were the only practical way of evaluating vulcanization of rubber. In the mid 1980’s there was a transformation in the industry occurring. The large tire companies were being acquired by foreign firms, and local factories were being closed. At the same time smaller US companies were filling some of the gap left by the departure of the major players. These smaller companies couldn’t afford the rheometers that were by natural supply and demand standards expensive from Monsanto. My parents made a logical bridge between the factory closures, and the need for low cost instrumentation. They purchased used instruments from shuttered plants at auctions, and rebuilt them to resell to the new companies needing cheaper instruments. This was, not surprisingly, welcome news to the industry. It was also a lot of work. Tech Pro hired first a night maintenance man from Kmart to help with the rebuilding. Joe Bulman was a superb tinkerer, and even though hired mainly as a technician, showed creative interests, and abilities. So, he became a design partner, and was the first person to design, along with my father, an original rheometer, not just a refurbished old one. Actually, I will digress for a moment on this story, as it is a perfect example of an experiment that needed adjusting.

In 1985 Tech Pro was actually happy, and even profitable in its business of refurbishing and reselling rheometers. With Joe building, my mother doing the administration, and my father doing sales and installations, it was a nice, very small business. The way the process worked was that Tech Pro would find the old, usually not functional instruments, at an abandoned factory and cheaply acquire them. They would then strip the instruments to only there bare physical structure. They would buy all new parts, from Monsanto, rebuild the instruments, paint them, test them and resell them. This was the entire business at the time. Then a shock that could have stopped Tech Pro at this stage happened. Monsanto refused to sell Tech Pro any more parts. Since Monsanto was the only supplier, there were no other choices. That is except the one that now seems obvious. Tech Pro started to make its own instruments. At this point my father moved from being a salesman, and installation man, to a designer, and Joe became an engineer.

Once Tech Pro had an equivalent, but less expensive instrument to Monsanto, the idea of being just a second supplier lost its excitement. My father was an experimenter at heart, and wanted to experiment with the most exciting technology of the day, the personal computer. Personal computers in 1985 had started to find their way into corporations in many ways. The large main frames of the past were no longer necessary for many applications. Spreadsheets and word processing were being used by nearly everyone. Accounting departments and human resources were starting to use personal computers. In the rubber laboratory, however, analogue devices, called recorders, were the only way to acquire information from rheometers. Personal computers seemed like a perfect fit. A computer would be able to acquire data from the instrument, and store the information. It should also be able to do mathematical calculations to help with the interpretation of that data. The problems in pursuing this line of experimentation were: 1). Joe, my mother and my father had never programmed before, and 2). Computer scientists were scarce and expensive.

Though Joe was the only engineer at Tech Pro in 1985, the work load for building and rebuilding instruments had increased to the point where some hourly employees were necessary to help with the manual labor involved. When a company is as small as Tech Pro, every hire is important, and risky, no matter how unskilled, or low paid the job appears to be. My parents even had a test, which was not so much based on knowledge but instead based on problem solving and creative manipulation. An example from this was putting together a pizza box quickly. Another involved an aspect of design. The only knowledge based questions were ones of electronics. It was important that every early Tech Pro employee know some basics, as everyone needed to multitask. There was also a search for a computer geek. For people who spent time building their own computers, and coding video games. Tech Pro was looking for people who had fun with computers and electronics, not people who were educated in them.

One of these early shop hands was Jeff Archer. Jeff was in his early twenties, high school educated, and clumsy with tools. In such a small firm, where the ability to use a broom, and a drill were more important than your ability to do differential equations, this could have been a problem. Instead months went by with Jeff working hard, but not extremely effectively as an assistant of sorts to Joe. Jeff’s potential during this time was growing, as he was indeed leaving work to build his own computers, and doing programming. When my father decided that he wanted to create the first PC applications for rheometers, he did not search for capital, and computer scientists, he instead looked for the geek with the broom. Jeff, and my father worked together to make the first ever PC driven rheometer system. Jeff was not just good technically, he was creative, and smart, and understood, like my father did, the psychology of the user. Together they created a system which was such a smooth transition from analogue to digital, that within 5 years the entire industry had embraced it.

Jeff was an experiment that paid off for him, for Tech Pro, and for the rubber industry in ways that were never hypothesized when he was hired. Still the flexibility and insight to see in him as a potential partner made something unique possible. Only in a small company where the owner knows the worker can this discovery be made.

Monday, December 7, 2009



Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.

— Sir Isaac Newton

Science fiction is a real passion for many scientists and non-scientists. Perhaps it may even account for the reason many of us work in science at all. For my generation, and my parents’ generation, there are two television series that most represent an idealized technological universe, Star Trek and Doctor Who. These two are markedly different from Orwellian type futurist fiction, in that they are not meant as a warning against technological advancement, but rather an excitement for its arrival. Something which strikes me as amazing is that the most popular character in Star Trek is Spock, the logical, knowledgeable Vulcan, who, until the recent Star Trek film, avoids human emotion in favor of reason. The Doctor, in Doctor Who, is certainly emotional, but he avoids commitment in a way, favoring discovery for its own sake. The Doctor sees nothing more romantic than traveling to the edges of time and the known universe, where even his vast comprehension is challenged, forcing him to learn something new. The reason that Spock and The Doctor are so enticing for the scientist, and the fan, is that they are able to reduce the complexity of the universe into something that is comprehensible for them, so, therefore, we feel it is possible for us. They remind us that while it takes a long time to learn things (The Doctor is over 900 years old!), once we know them those things become simple. The goal for them and for us is to have as much simplicity as possible in our lives. If we succeed, Quantum Chromadynamics and partial differential equations become second nature.

Business tends to have the inverse value system. Specialization is not the same in business ideology. A CEO is not meant to understand the mechanics of financial models that make up the foundation of his company, or to understand the cultural components that affect the work habits and productivity of his thousands of employees. The job of a CEO is to create layers of complexity in the system, all of which he feels are handled by others, so that he can focus on the most illogical part of the process, which is vision. A business leader relies on the two things that Spock or The Doctor would never accept; faith and emotion. The faith is accepting that the system in place works, and that the thousands of employees he doesn’t even know are doing something useful. The perception, even by the leader himself, is that this is not happening.

Now more than ever a CEO is bombarded with data. This data is too much for any one person to fully grasp; yet major decisions need to be made from it. In Malcolm Gladwells essay on the Enron crisis, he speaks of the complications of the accounting, and structural components of the Enron crisis. He suggests that there was so much data form special entity companies that Enron created, that it was actually not possible for the CEO Jeff Skilling to truly understand what was going on. So while claiming to be using numbers, those numbers were useless in really evaluating the situation. The company was just too large and too complex. Like Skilling, many CEOs then revert to an instinctual and rigid evaluation of a company’s health. My mother refers to this as “management by spreadsheet”, which until recently I didn’t completely understand, or even agree with. A spreadsheet appears to be very scientific. Then I revisited the lab environment. During a course of any experiment, enormous amounts of data are generated, and put into spreadsheets. Nearly anyone can do this. The creative scientist is not the one to compile data, but to properly analyze it. It is possible that a trained CEO could analyze data well. It is not likely though that he can analyze well the complete data that is presented to him. A scientist is always trying to narrow the scope of a single evaluation, because looking at multiple things at one time introduces too many variables to properly understand. A CEO, even if somehow very mathematical and analytical by nature, couldn’t possibly do this. He is instead forced to rely on generalizations about the data. This leads to an impersonal management style, and ultimately on that is not quantitative at all.

Being emotional, and trusting are not bad qualities. It is what makes us different from a Vulcan or Time Lord. It is risky though to be in a situation where you are incapable of returning to the hard facts when necessary. This is a major advantage for small technology companies, who have less than 100 employees. In these companies you can read the financial statements monthly, talk with all of the engineers daily, and analyze customer satisfaction on your own.

The hallmark of an overly complex business community can be seen at corporate headquarters, when business managers spend 90% of their days in meetings. I have been a consultant for large companies, and have found myself in some of these meetings. The goal is a good one; to make grand plans for the business. These meetings usually end up producing documents of notes from the meetings, and the notes produce documents of a strategy, which if you wait long enough trigger another meeting, which in the rare instance result in a document that gets passed down the management chain. Occasionally this may lead to innovation, but it is by nature an isolating process, where the meeting room and the document generation process become a bigger part of the route than the product or customer. This actually tends to happen even at small companies, especially those managed by MBAs. It rarely happens at small companies run by engineers or scientists, because engineers are too curious to not be involved. The Doctor would never delegate a mission to the future in a distant galaxy, because the joy of being a Time Lord is visiting it yourself, or with partners. This is one place where Google, even as large as it has become, succeeds. The founders and all major executives are engineers themselves, and avid users of the product. They understand creativity and how it comes from experimentation, rather than meetings. So each Google engineer is required to spend 20% of their time working on any idea they have. The other 80% is spent on other Google projects. That is 100%, none of which is in meetings. CEO Eric Schmitt, in a 2006 Charlie Rose interview, admits that this is getting more and more difficult as they grow. He claims that founder Larry Page knew the first 2500 employees personally, and exactly what each made. Page is brilliant of course to be able to remember 2500. For most of us knowing 100 people is about maximum. So now that Google has 30,000, even Page is in the dark about most of his employees.

My father ran Tech Pro with Google style ideals. Since Tech Pro was so small it wasn’t necessary to formally structure them. There were small clues that let employees and customers know that it was a business run by curiosity and the thrill of science, rather than by meeting. One was that no one had titles on their business cards. While this may have been a deliberate choice, it was more of a practical one. Technician, salesman, engineer or president were each expected to be an advocate for the customer.. There was a constant feedback loop between customers and product development, without the middle or top bureaucracy which slows down progress. Another system which was at place at Tech Pro was a loose work schedule for engineers and especially programmers. These jobs were as creative as they were scientific, and people work better at different times of day or night. Often a programmer would still be at Tech Pro at midnight, even though he might not arrive the next day until noon. This made everyone feel a certain ownership in the products they were creating, but also a feeling of ownership in the company itself. The workplace often became an extension of their home where they not only worked but made coffee and ordered pizza. This sometimes meant that during the actual work day some engineers did very little work. They talked, had lunch and walked around the outside of the building smoking. With this strange schedule there was no time for, or really any need for long formal meetings, because small informal ones were happening all of the time.

It is obvious to me that this bureaucracy -free system is simpler to maintain, and for small companies more effective and fun. It also has a way of transferring to the products and services as well. Customers become a natural extension of this environment, as the Tech Pro team is used to seeing the business “universe” as approachable rather than intimidating. Product design also tends to reduce complexity into simpler components. Tech Pro always used off the shelf components because they were available quickly and any time of day or night. For development this meant that you didn’t need to wait for an outside consultant to prepare a proprietary scheme. This made the costs of the final product less, and also led to innovation that could not have happened otherwise.

By working simply, Tech Pro was actually more efficient and more interesting Simplicity was the rational approach to organization that Spock would have wanted and the adventurous approach that The Doctor would have embarked on. Technology and business can seem very complex but when seen in retrospect everything that has been done is very simple.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


For a dying man it is not a difficult decision [to agree to become the world's first heart transplant] ... because he knows he is at the end. If a lion chases you to the bank of a river filled with crocodiles, you will leap into the water convinced you have a chance to swim to the other side. But you would not accept such odds if there were no lion.

— Christiaan Barnard

Scientists suffer from an unfair reputation in America. They are considered to lack instinctual savvy. For this reason, nearly every physicist I know is deeply offended by the stereotypical characters in the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” They are socially awkward and tend to quantify even the most banal details of life. What my colleagues miss about “The Big Bang Theory” though, is that hidden underneath all of the silliness these characters possess something that is unique, and apparently rather attractive about scientists. After all, even the Asbergian self-centered Sheldon is likeable , I actually think that there is something about the geekiness of “The Big Bang Theory” that is every bit as attractive as the coolness of the “Sex in The City” ladies. Though this is certainly a project for sociologists and not me, I have a hypothesis regarding television likeability and culture. I think that somehow we know that the common perception of cool is not really all that important, or even interesting. This is a significant, even if unconscious, realization for modern television viewers, because common wisdom takes a long time to become common. It is also interesting because it gives a defense for seeing the Universe and ourselves differently. In essence we think that everything Sheldon does is not intuitive. He is a classic clown in this way. He humiliates himself by creating friendship surveys so that he can create a mathematical model to see who would best qualify as a friend. Our instincts are the opposite of this. We become friends with people because they are attractive in some, sometimes superficial, way. They make us laugh, or they are handsome, or they are somehow dynamic in a way that we wish we were. For anyone who has had friends they ended up hating, or has been married and divorced, human instincts are exceptionally bad.

This is one area where a geeky physicist may have some insight on business that is different than everyone else. Physicists are used to the facts being different than the way they feel. The Copernican revolution is one of the first examples of this: it doesn’t feel right that the earth rotates around the sun. This is even truer of 20th century physics. Our instincts are absolutely insufficient to understand Einstein. General Relativity, with warped space-time, just isn’t in our normal arsenal of instinctual survival skills. Quantum mechanics is even less intuitive, so much so that one of its discoverers, the Danish Nobel Laureate Neils Bohr famously said, “If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet.” So to be a good physicist or scientist in general, it is important to be at least a little “Sheldonesque.” We must not trust our instincts, but instead investigate the truth. In facts and friendships we need to consider quantitative data, not just attraction.

A field of science which is relatively new is called “evolutionary biology”. You would think that this would have started just after Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” was published in 1859, but it wasn’t. That revolutionary book was so well written, that it debunked all of recorded history’s various religious interpretations of biology without being all that difficult to understand. In fact, when you read “Origin of Species” the first thing that comes to mind is “why did it take so long to realize this?” Darwin just observed and recorded nature for many years, and made a leap which was incredibly obvious in retrospect; that there is a relation between species and that certain traits and species survive because of natural selection. This was, of course, controversial for all of the obvious reasons as well. Religion is both very personal and very political. Even though what Darwin was doing was science, it did step on some sacred beliefs. Still, to most people who read the book it made sense. Theodore Roosevelt read it when he was 14 years old and for the rest of his life claimed it was the most important book ever written. It is easy to see that Roosevelt’s love of nature shaped his decisions as president, and much of that can be traced back to his admiration for Darwin. So because of its apparently intuitive qualities, Natural Selection could be taught in biology classes, without there being a separate branch of the discipline devoted to it.

The surprising thing is that as much as Natural Selection made sense, it really wasn’t as intuitive as expected. What made most sense to humans about evolution was not the centuries it takes for species to transform themselves. This is hard to visualize. Instead it was an idea that humans could only prosper through a conscious survival of the fittest. The term Social Darwinism was coined in 1944 by the historian Richard Hofstedter to reference some rather disturbing contemporary human behavior that was carried out with the excuse of Darwinian naturalism. The most obvious during Hofsteder’s time was the eugenics programs of the Nazis. The concept of superior races, and linking human survival to the elimination of the unfit seemed like an extension of Darwin’s work. In fact, Darwin’s own cousin, Francis Galton, was the founder of Eugenics at the end of the 19th Century.

It is only when you let go of this instinctual idea of survival of the fittest that you can really see the true scope of Evolutionary Biology. Genetic mutations are slow to occur, and happen because of natural means, but humans have removed themselves from the natural process. Technology, as wonderful as it is, is only 10,000 years old. Until that time there was not agriculture or architecture. There were no cities or writings. We call everything before this “prehistory,” because until that point history was not created by deliberate societal choices. Darwinism has been in progress since the beginning of life on earth, but social Darwinism exists only during those times we call “history”. Therefore most scientists feel that we as humans are effecting nature, while behaving as if they were outside of the natural process. This is not instinctual, and is not as easy as “Origin of The Species” initially seemed to be.

Social Darwinism is also evident when evaluating risk. The 2008 credit crisis and banking collapse can be seen in this light. The majority of the crisis was caused by misunderstanding risk. Was it riskier to give certain loans or not? Was it riskier to make certain credit swaps or not? There are two prevalent points of view about why this happened, and in such dramatic and drastic ways. Most people not working in finance see it as a case of greed. This viewpoint is an unconscious blaming of social Darwinism. It holds that the wealthy Wall Street Bankers wanted to be the strongest, therefore richest, so they pushed for larger profits at the expense of the weaker greater population. On the other hand, the banking industry blames poor financial modeling for the collapse. The claim has been that the models did not appropriately explain the risks associated with these transactions. Even the most famous economist and Federal Reserve chief of all time, Allen Greenspan, used this explanation saying “the models of finance that I have followed were not accurate in predicting this crisis”. When we look at these two explanations we see a huge contrast, while both ignore something that is probably more accurate. It was neither greed nor modeling alone that caused this. It was merely a deficiency in our ability to instinctually comprehend risk. The numbers were too big, our vision of history too limited, and our confidence too great. It seems that we were not as smart as we thought. Growth seemed inevitable. We thought that credit and finance in general were part of the evolutionary process, but in fact they were removed from it. Derivatives and credit default swaps just happened too fast for Natural Selection to catch up with them.

This applies also to the personal and professional risks associated with starting a technology company. The common wisdom on the risks of entrepreneurship are strangely opposed to the way we approach risk in our daily lives. Most people change their risk threshold based on how much money they have. When we have very little money we tend to risk all we have, because we feel there is not much to lose. This is why lottery lines are longest in poor neighborhoods, and why casinos are filled with people who can’t really afford to lose the money that they are gambling with. These people feel that the upside is much larger than the downside. It just feels right, but is completely wrong. The odds of a poor person winning the lottery are just as bad as the odds of a rich person winning the lottery, but the risks associated with the poor person playing are so much worse. This wrong instinct extends through the middle classes and even to the wealthy, not for lottery tickets but for ideas and the money it takes to pursue them. Someone who is worth 2 Billion Dollars is less likely to risk 1 Billion dollars on a single venture or idea, than someone worth $ 200,000 is to risk $100,000 Even though the billionaire may lose much more money he certainly is in better shape financially than the person who loses half of his $200,000 investment. Our instincts are just that bad.

Instinctively entrepreneurs often work by the motto “never spend your own money”. I have been told this many times, by everyone from the founder of Cirque Du Soleil, to the investor of the leveraged buyout concept in the 1980’s. These people have been undoubtedly following their instincts, and those instincts have made them a lot of money. The question I need to ask myself  is whether that would make me a lot of money too, and more importantly whether that would be the best thing for my company and the happiness. We have tended to answer no to that question. Seeking other people’s money presents a bigger risk for me than risking my own for reasons that seem completely unreasonable.

The main reason why technical entrepreneurs, like me and my family, may want to take relatively large risks compared to the Billionaire, but relatively small risks compared to the lottery addict is because it is a scale that we can relate to. There is an assumption that the risk taken is never so great that it will land us and our children on the street corner, but is none the less a risk that could alter our lifestyle. This is something a scientist can understand. A scientist knows he cannot appreciate in an instinctual way, those things which he cannot feel, and that further comprehension only comes through a deep knowledge of a subject. For a scientist starting a small company it isn’t always the most interesting use of his time to fully understand business, so he shouldn’t have to do it. The risk and reward factors change when this is considered. It becomes more risky to raise large sums of money because large sums of money may be out of the scientist/entrepreneur’s expertise. In order to gain that expertise he would have to sacrifice his true interests, which may very well be the riskiest choice of all.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Technically Responsible

Many years ago my wife and I had dinner with a friend of mine, who is a very talented theatre director, and performer. His work was inspiring to me, and I would generally see anything he did. I must admit though, as with my free jazz performances, his style of experimental theatre did not attract very large audiences. He made a statement to us, which at the time I thought rather pretentious. He said that he did not care if there was an audience at all. He would do his performance every night in an empty theatre if he had to, and still feel the same power and importance for creating a unique art. He felt no responsibility to an audience, only to himself. I would later find that many great and even successful artists's, whether it was Miles Davis, or Ingmar Bergman cared little about the audience. In both of those cases the audiences came anyway, as they should have, because the art was so special. For those of us whose art does not appeal to large groups however, we can still continue to perform. The idea of responsibility to an audience is actually a huge distraction for the most part, as we may very well choose quantity over quality. In the arts we also need to be honest with ourselves, especially if we play free jazz or do experimental theatre. No matter whether we have a relatively big audience or not, it doesn't make such a difference. Either the product will live on, or not, but the moment is fleeting. It is also not exactly perfect to speak about responsibility to an audience, as even a bad performance won't be genocide, a famine, a world war or even a hangover. It will just be an unpleasant hour or two in a theatre. While this may be true in the arts, as a scientist, or a technologist there is much more at stake.

Many mornings when I am going to work I listen to Podcasts from the Stanford Literature Professor Robert Harrison called "Entitled Opinions". I highly recommend this podcast, as it is both entertaining and educational. Also for those of you that work in Academic Science or Technology it will be a huge change for you, as it was for me. Dr. Harrison is a classicist, and literary intellect, who while respecting and even hosting scientists from time to time, can be critical of modern society's manic drive to innovate, without particular attention to long term consequences. Though this may seem obvious, it is far from it for those of us who read and respect some of history's great scientific discoveries. I have often repeated a famous quote by Richard Feynman, who in addition to being a Nobel Laureate Physicist also worked on the Atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. This is what Feynman said:

"scientific technology improves production, but we have trouble with automation. It brings about advances in medicine, but then we worry about the number of births and the fact that no one dies from the diseases we have eliminated. It produces rapid air transportation, but it also makes possible the severe horrors of air war. In a sense, science is like a key that can open the gates to heaven or hell. Which portal the key unlocks depends on the humans who employ it."

Often I and many other scientists working on theories or in labs even tend to use this as an excuse. In fact I am so convinced that this is a good statement that I think it is expressing something almost necessary in our evolution as a species. It is a desire to understand the universe of the large and small, and the mechanisms by which it functions. In doing that we uncover new ways to extend our lives, such as medicine, bio-engineering and even more futuristic notions such as neuro-regeneration and the downloadable brain. This seems to me to be what we must do. What Dr. Harrison and his guests put in perceptive for me is that we cannot pursue science and technology in intellectual isolation. Isolation has several relevant meaning here. Often when working on complex equations or experiments we physically and politically isolate ourselves, almost out of necessity. It is just too hard to lose focus. Maybe more importantly we isolate ourselves philosophically. I have written in this blog before of a convergence of art, science and philosophy, and how our specialized Academic world can limit our experience, and even hold back progress in the fields we work in. What I think of more now however is how working without recognition and understanding of philosophy can be dangerous, and counterproductive to human progress. Certainly the bomb is an obvious one. It was hard working, brilliant scientists' pursuing an idea which could lead to destruction. But what about the seemingly smaller efforts we make? For example, what about the impact of a new material, not only on our environment but on our interaction with nature and other people? My French father in law and I have had many arguments about progress. He is an extremely educated polymath, who worked as an engineer, but is equally proficient in quoting Victor Hugo, and Chateaubriand by memory at the dinner table. With all of this knowledge, as well as the fact that he has used computers since computers were becoming personal, he has always told me that society should be conscious of the "arbre de connaissance". For many years I thought that his idea was anti-democratic. The free flow of information and the ability for everyone to participate through the internet is one of the luckiest benefits of being alive in the 21rst century. But he is right. Without thought of consequence, knowledge alone is not progress. Advances in science and technology require responsibility. The reason this is truer now than ever, is that not just academics are using and creating sophisticated technologies. Nearly everyone is a technologist, no matter what field they work in. Still, with these new technologies, and our constant innovation we have the same human struggles we have always had. We face our own mortality. Unlike Epicurus, and other great philosophers though, we tend to not address that mortality metaphysically, but rather physically or religiously. For the non religious, like me, we try to conquer death through invention. Reading great literature or philosophy though, puts us back in the same boat as all humans in recorded history. Suddenly we realize that we must continue to innovate, but if we do so only with tools and not the mind we will be alone. We must think of technology as a responsibility. We are no longer playing to ourselves in an empty theatre, even if it feels like it.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Embracing Abstraction

Mathematics and philosophy have come together and separated countless times in Western civilization. It seems to me that they diverged in one of the strongest ways just over 100 years ago when Einstein published his great works on special relativity, the photoelectric effect and quantum mechanics. Suddenly science and mathematics seemed to encompass such an important and large part of the imagination that philosophy was relegated to dealing primarily with human suffering and existential dread. Both of these are important, but they are limited to human consciousness, while physics was not just reaching towards far away galaxies, but also inwards. It was analyzing time in new ways and exploring the invisible, but real worlds of atoms and molecules. This was the unofficial debut of the theoretical scientist as the stars of logic. The idea of theory to an artist and philosopher is one of ideas. To a scientists theory is mathematics. Theoretical physicists use mathematics to model the universe. To extrapolate our experience beyond our vision.

Recently my wife Marine was explaining Montessori education to me, and the systems that are used for teaching mathematics. Though I am now deeply interested in this, I still don’t know much at all. The main point was that children will learn numbers as a physical reality in small quantities. They can then extrapolate the concept for larger values. Only after this do they learn the symbols, which are written numbers. Though this is a digression from my point, it is what got me thinking about abstraction and science for this blog.

A scientist derives, proves and calculates in order to represent reality in a precise way. What the artist and theoretical scientist have in common in this regard is that both pursuits exist only with a strong ability to abstract. Physics which is the study of nature is not explored by the theoretician in a manner of direct observation, but by manipulation of matrices and formulae.

Abstraction may be a unique human ability which makes the creation of technologies, sculptures, space ships and books possible. It is also likely connected to our desire to distance ourselves from real nature by abstracting it further and further into our models. Goethe, the great poet, famous for words, which are abstractions en par with numbers, pushed back from Newtonian reductionism in favor of a more observation based science of Optics. In most ways Goethe’s scientific ideas were wrong. Newton describes nature in a much more accurate way; the question which remains however is who saw it (as opposed to describe it) more accurately? I believe what the Physicist Richard Feynman said to an artist friend who complained to Feynman that scientists take away the beauty of a yellow flower by reducing it to its scientific components. Feynman said that because he understands why a flower is yellow he appreciates it more. Feynman was unique in his ability to see nature on a deeper level esthetically and realistically while representing it with numbers and diagrams. This is the human intellectual evolution where we can congregate to abstract, but not without first observing. A child may not be able to calculate 1,000,000, but because she understands how to get from 1 to 10, from both observing and abstracting, she can comprehend the concept of 1,000,000. This is what Marine explained to me. As scientists we need perhaps to intuitively understand those things we can see, create numerical abstractions, then extrapolate. With that the theoretician, artist and philosopher can meet on common ground.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Was Wilbur a Rheologist?

Sometimes I stay up late at night and read, watch sci-fi television or write these blogs. Of course in the blogs sometimes my exhaustion shows, as I make rather strange connections between the science I am working on and art. This is all to say that though this one may involve the most farfetched of analogies, I am perfectly awake, and at least as sane as I usually am. Since I am up late some nights, it is especially difficult to wake up early when my little girl does. Many times my wife gets up with her, but other times I do. I find that coffee is slow in getting me going, and since my little girl wants to play, I find things that will get us both moving, and that we both like. My wife put the kibosh on gansta rap music, which had become a nice ritual, when my daughter started saying that “it’s all about the Benjamins baby”, and “It’s hard out here for a Pimp”, at family dinners. So I turned to another source of funny entertainment from my childhood, the 1960’s television series, Mr. Ed., which I had watched in reruns, while home sick from grammar school. Thanks to You Tube I can now share the miraculous talking, brilliant, hilarious horse with my 4 year old daughter, who now even translates “a Horse is a Horse of course of course” to French. I guess that the show was a hit in those days, because it was so damn funny, but also because people could relate to both the horse Mr. Ed., who due to the unfortunate act of birth was born a horse with an IQ and vocal abilities that combined Albert Einstein and Frank Sinatra, and Wilbur, who had such a brilliant friend, but because this friend lived in the stables, could not share the companionship with anyone. Perhaps we all feel lonely like this sometimes, and that either ourselves, or the people (or animals) we love are misunderstood. Mr. Ed. reads every newspaper that Wilbur brings to him, and he has an excellent analytical mind. In one episode for instance he figures out the problem in the Dodgers line up, and has Wilbur write to Dodgers management. The solution clears up the whole problem, and the Dodgers go on to winning a pennant, in addition to getting great publicity with pictures of a horse sliding into home base taken when Wilbur brings Mr. Ed. to the field. What didn’t occur to me, though it must seem obvious to anyone who thinks about it outside the isolation of Nickelodeon Syndication, is that Wilbur most likely has a severe case of schizophrenia. Though we mostly think of people with this disease as homeless, and in many cases dangerous, it is a rather common disease, and it is not unlikely that upper middle class Californians like Wilbur are visiting the barn for a night cap with a thoroughbred. So suddenly this old sitcom became all the more personal to me, as I have related to Wilbur and Ed since 1980i. I started thinking about my days, and whether I am either farm animal living amonst creatures who don’t speak my language, or a bourgeois business man whose intellectual equals eat hay while standing on all fours. It is probably not so uncommon that I am thinking in these terms, as I am living in France, where my French is not so good. I have conversations in a language, where I might as well be saying neigh half of the time. Still there is something more to this. I also spend the majority of my day working in a small field of physics called Rheology. If you ask 99.9% of all Physicists in the world their opinion on rheological issues they will not know what you are talking about. Yet like most academic pursuits those of us who do spend a good amount of time considering issues relating rheology, we find it very interesting, compelling to the point of obsessiveness, and even extremely important. Though I assume everyone reading this must have a basic understanding of rheology (do I suffer from delusions?), it will sum it up to say that it is the study of complex flow of materials. Any materials that is, which to me seems like it is the study of nearly everything in the Universe. That is very a very broad philosophical interpretation of it though, as the truth is we have to study very specific properties, of very specific materials, which means that the universe as a whole rarely comes into focus. Still, I spent all week, and will spend many more working on this topic, with one, or at most two other people who are smarter, than, and at least as passionate as I am about this subject. This weekend I played with the family, and tomorrow I go back to the University (or is it the stable), and figure out how to analyze polymers in the fluid state, or is that win the pennant?

It may seem like I am saying that either I am a nut who can’t communicate with other people, like Wilbur, or a genius that no one understands, Like Mr. Ed. This is not really true in a directly analogous way. Wilbur and Mr. Ed. are cultural extremes. Wilbur is the most middle class normal married guy, and Mr. Ed is the most… well talking horse. Neither of these extremes exists in real life. What do exist are small enclaves in University science departments, art schools, back rooms of jazz clubs, and internet chat rooms. In these places everyone is working very hard at doing something they find important in some way, while struggling with to find a language that the rest of society can understand. We run up against a society where conformity now means not only having the best cocktail parties for the neighbors, but how many Facebook Friends you have, and Google hits occur when you type your name into the subject line. All of this pressure to speak and to be understood by the world as a whole however isn’t what our lives are really about. Really it is more like Wilbur and Mr. Ed, facing the world together and apart.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why does France like the piano?

I have never given this much thought until the first night I was living in Paris. My wife, little girl and I went to Bistrot Amelot, almost across the street from our new 400 year-old apartment. We picked this restaurant because they had confit de canard and homemade sorbet but I soon noticed that it also had a 1920’s upright piano on the bar-side. When I asked about it, the waitress, who is also one of the owners, invited me to play it. This was incredible luck. I had found a regular place to play within 2 hours of moving to Paris.

So now that I have been in Paris for one month, I have made the Bistrot my own salon, where I play almost daily, take my daughter for snack and get to know my new neighbors. I could write an entire book, a kind of Damon Runyon of Le Marais tale of the regulars of the Bistrot but that will wait.

One aspect of conversation that always surprises me is how much the clientele love the piano. Everyone has a favorite piano player, piano style, piano composer, and even, in some cases, piano maker. The French pride which causes them to buy Renaults and Peugeots religiously also gives them an unquestioned loyalty to the Pleyel. This shouldn’t be a surprise to me when I think of French music history. Chopin, the most famous piano composer in history, though Polish-born, composed most of his important work in Paris. He was more than welcomed here along with Liszt, also lived in Paris. They were arguably the most sought after artists and social figures in Paris. Within one hundred year, Paris had Debussy and Satie, both innovators on the keyboard who are still respected, performed and taught throughout the world. Other examples are Messian in contemporary classical music and most recently the pianist Pierre Aimard who is so famous in the classical world that he played at the Cleveland Orchestra and Carnegie Hall in the same week.

So why do the French like the piano? I have an idea, which is so much a guess, that I am not even sure why I am bothering to write it. France has a long history of Salon life, especially in upper-class and artistic societies. This is not uniquely French, but it is famously French. Though it is hard to point to the beginning of this movement, we are certain that it is at least as old as the 17th century. I am currently writing this while looking at a house that once belonged to the writer Madame de Sévigné. She chronicled some of the most important Parisian salons, where along with food and gossip, music was served and respected.
By the time Chopin was living and composing in Paris, the salon was the primary place for musical entertainment, competition and experimentation. While Chopin didn’t much like public performances, he did thrive on salon playing. Often, Liszt would be in the same room and the two of them would replace each other at the keyboard to both try out new composition and to improvise on themes suggested by other guests. Witnesses from these salons say that the Chopin improvisations were more impressive even than the formal compositions. This continued throughout the 20th century. Even the famous art salon of Gertrude Stein had a Pleyel where both Satie and Stravinsky played while everyone from Proust to Picasso listened. Later in the 20th century, the presence of the salon and the piano were reduced in importance but some of the residual feelings remained. For one thing, the French tend to spend hours together at home, essentially around a meal. Even when a meal is finished, family and friends entertain and challenge each other with stories, jokes and even music. Some of my wife’s finest memories of childhood are late evenings falling asleep to her parents and family friends singing and playing instruments in the salon.

There is a big difference between salon music and concerts. It is of course more intimate, which may be why the French have a more personal connection with this type of music. It is hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent. It just doesn’t seem the same to have Béyoncé performing in our living rooms, though some of us wouldn’t mind.

Two nights ago, I was watching an amazing television show called “La boite à musique”. This program is 2 hours of classical and contemporary music with modern culture thrown in. There was a prodigious and creative jazz pianist, Yaron Herman who played on the show. Before the program had even ended, I had requested him as a Facebook friend and sent a message that I was also a pianist living in Paris. We are planning on soon meeting to play maybe at the Bistrot or maybe at a home. For me, this may be as close as I can come to the excitement of playing in a Parisian salon. It might also help provide more people with an introduction to the piano.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Adversely Creative

Ever since I have arrived in France two months ago, I have been increasingly impressed by the French appreciation of jazz, and of science. This is very encouraging for me, since neither of these things is particularly popular in the United States at the moment. There is so much truth in this that I am beginning to wonder why we still have some of the greatest innovation, and some of the best music coming out of the States. Quality of innovation is subjective, so any point I make is arguable. Still, while I don’t have any agenda as an American, I would like to figure this out as a professor and an improvisational musician. Like most positive things there seem to be an equal amount of negative. The negatives I am referring to may even be the cause of the creativity.
Last month the guitarist Les Paul died at the age of 94. My family and I had seen him perform twice just in the last 2 years, which was a pleasure from an entertainment and historical perspective, but I never really thought about it beyond the music. I of course knew that there was a Gibson guitar called the Les Paul, and that he must have somehow been involved with the development of this instrument. It was only when I heard a rebroadcast of 1992 interview of him, that I realized how much Les Paul himself straddled the worlds of artistic and technological innovation, and how much his contributions were in part due to the personal obstacles he overcame. Les Paul invented the process of multi tracking, for instance, in order to be able to continue a recording session even after his bass player left the room. He invented extended sustain and looping, because of the immobility in his hands due to extreme arthritis. With these techniques, he could play slower and less notes at the same time, while achieving a sound that was more complex than he was able to achieve when he had perfect fingers. Les Paul also told a story of a time when he was in his late 50’s and could not get a gig. He volunteered to play on Monday nights at Fat Tuesdays in New York, because the club was closed on Mondays. He even worked for door money alone. All of this is to say that his contributions came from adversity.
As I write this, there are protests all around the United States about the proposed health care bill which is being debated in congress. Regardless of what stance people take on this particular plan, there is one thing that seems very obvious from here in Paris. That is that the United States has adversity. There is a very small middle class. More babies are dying than in the rest of the western world (we are ranked 33rd in the world in infant mortality), and the country’s poor are living in fear of bankruptcy due to health care bills (over 60% of personal bankruptcies in 2008 were due to health related issues). Though France has its problems, access of health care is not even discussed here, as the problem has been essentially solved by a proven government run system. Like most things that we get used to, it is assumed that this is a universal status quo. Health care is just one example of this. When my daughter was 4 days old in Brooklyn, we took her to the pediatrician for her first check up. As any new parent knows, this is an anxious time, when you have no idea what you are doing. We waited in the lobby, and were not allowed to enter for the appointment because we had forgotten the health insurance card at home. We have health insurance. I can’t imagine how parents without manage. In France it is forbidden to even ask, before taking in a patient. Other examples of this are pregnancy leave which is 4 and 1/2 months in France (for the first child, more for subsequent children), and universal Pre-K, which starts at 2 ½ years old.
My French wife and friends will point out that France is not the Utopia that I make it out to be, and certainly they are right. I am new to France, and already I have seen how the famous French bureaucracy can lead to frustration, or apathy, while perhaps discouraging entrepreneurship. While this is no doubt true, it doesn’t address the lone talent, who has a vision for composing, painting, or even inventing. While government is a hassle and a help, the society in general is left healthier and more educated than in America.
So how these two stories relate, may answer some questions that could help us learn on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps America’s adversity, like adversity faced by Les Paul, has brought about innovation. Perhaps this feeling that Americans have a positive ambitious creativity is simply out of necessity. A kind of creative survival of the fittest. This is scary, as this will leave out most Americans. For those that do survive however, they may produce some great art and technology. This should not be good enough for us Americans. We should realize that not everyone needs to be a Les Paul, and that everyone does need to have health care. Here in France, the situation is reversed. While the French appreciate art and science, they need to take more risks. In a society that gives as much as France does, it becomes necessary for the artist and scientist to step back from the comfort of that, and recognize what personal shortcomings they may have despite the luck of being born here. When they do that more people will be able to see that their own immobility, like Les Paul’s, may be their greatest asset.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Reinventing the...?

One of the most clichéd pieces of advice given to someone who is starting a new business is “don’t reinvent the wheel”. This is so obviously true that it is not a very useful suggestion. While I don’t know much about wheels, I have worked with the tire industry for a long time, as a supplier and advisor to research and quality control labs. Tires are products that in the 21rst century we tend to not think of much. The reason we don’t think of them much however, is that even in recent years the tire has been reinvented. Billions of dollars are spent every year for research in order to make tires more efficient, cheaper, higher quality and more environmentally friendly. Much of this research has been successful, or at least in the process of succeeding, as most of us drive long distances without ever worrying about flat tires. At the same time, while better, there are still issues with tires, especially with the environmental impact of them. So research continues, and without most of us knowing, the tire will be reinvented.
Last night we went with friends to a Baroque concert which was a part of the Saintes festival near Cognac in France. The friends who invited us I respect very much for their taste in music, so despite the fact that it was very old music, in a very old Romanesque abbey, I looked forward to it. This old Church was completely packed, people having bought tickets over a year in advance. All of this was in a small town, to see and hear a lute player, and conter tenor perform songs of the 16th century. As soon as the concert started I forgot that what I was listening to was such an old creation. By the time the performance was over my immediate thought was “this was beautiful”. Why do we keep re-inventing the wheel by trying to create new music?” I don’t believe this of course, but I am know there are certainly many people who would still say the Bach achieved a perfection that has not been rivaled to this day.
I have spent much of my life in music in the same way I have with tire labs. I sometimes participate in a small way to improve things, and in most cases I happily and curiously observe others doing it. Music of course is subjective and creative in a way that industry is not. It will always be disputable whether John Cage is as important of a figure as Schoenberg, or Beethoven as Mozart. Still, when I listened to the Baroque performance I realized that the change is much more subtle, especially consider the hundreds of years that separate the music I was hearing from the music we now create, that I do think reinvention happens not as a grand revolution, but quietly in the labs of composers.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


When I was 23 years old, which was quite a long time ago, I spent a few weeks alone in Paris, at a friend’s apartment in Le Marais. I spoke no French, and my soon to be wife Marine was running a summer camp in the country in the south of France. Looking back this was a unique time which couldn’t happen now. We didn’t have cell phones, so we only spoke when we both could get to pay phones at the same time. This was complicated, but it gave me an enormous amount of freedom to explore the city, and myself. I was, at the time, directing and producing plays in New York, having already given up on acting due to lack of talent (it would take a while longer to do the same for directing), and though the pieces I was involved with in New York were certainly edgy, and experimental in nature, what I wanted most was to create something completely natural and organic. This is to be distinguished from a theatrically naturalistic, which usually means a turn of the century style in which acting is very much meant to be like real life. Conversations around dinner tables kind of thing. When I mean natural, I mean a connection between body and mind, which is what attracted me about so much art from the poetry of Walt Whitman, to the painting of Picasso. This is one reason I always liked dance so much, having taken classes for years, even though I had no ability for it. So, one day in front of the Pompidou Center I saw some street performers dancing in a way which truly did seem modern to me. They were physically so involved with each other. A kind of Pilobolus thing, but which looked completely animalistic. Like dogs or lions rolling together, biting a bit, but all the while physically entangled. I watched this for a long time, and when they took a break to pass around the hat, I tried to talk to some, who luckily spoke better English than I spoke French. The man I spoke with could tell that I was in complete admiration of what they were doing, so he invited me to a class for the next day. I went to the store, and bought some dance clothes, as any I still had were left in New York, and went to the class. As soon as I entered, the instructor said, (after having to repeat for me in English) “you may now get undressed”. The class was to be completely in the nude. This really was naturalistic! Much more so than a dinner table conversation in a Eugene O’Neill play. I, to my embarrassment, and later regret, was too insecure to take the class, and walked out, only to torture myself over this missed opportunity.
Why did I think this was a missed opportunity? Why was I so attracted to what these dancers were doing? I think it has taken me many years to realize that what I admired most, and what attracted me most, was that I wanted to participate in a kind of conversation that I couldn’t have with words alone. This is especially urgent when in a country that you can’t speak the language. Even though in real life, there are times not only when the language of books and plays fails to be adequate to express yourself, but where normal discussions and language itself seems to fall short. Part of this is the social convention that surrounds what we choose to talk about, and the rest is something that is more philosophical. It is the full breakdown of Descartes body mind duality, where somehow we know that we cannot really express ourselves emotionally or intellectually with the conventions we are given, or from the brain (intellect) alone. These dancers certainly realized this.
Now many years later I am deeply involved in Jazz improvisation, which is an ongoing conversation between other musicians, and with myself. Wynton Marsalis said in this book “Moving to Higher Ground” that jazz improvisation requires such quick decisions to be made, that you don’t have the time to lie. There is something liberating about being forced to be honest with myself, my colleagues and an audience. There is also something about this experience which speaks to communication in general. I wonder if everyone is, like me, looking for a way to be forced to honesty. Also we may all have a desire to be forced to listen, and to entangle ourselves in someone else’s naked grasp. With our instruments tuned, and no words spoken, we are naked musicians, who are rolling around together in a profound human experience. It makes me feel like an early human who sang, drew and spoke for the first time.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Evolving Music

Last night for the opening Gala of the World Science Festival, I was manic with ideas, dreams, and general excitement. Here was a room of some of the world’s greatest scientists, artists and musicians, all successfully blurring the lines of creativity and rigor, elegance and structure, and all the time being extremely entertaining. The second act was a new composition by Philip Glass with projections of stunning nature photographs by Frans Lanting. It would be difficult to imagine a better night for me, who spends so much time on the fringes of these worlds. It was a chance to be inside, and really experience ideas and art that relate to science. For some reason though there must be a devil on my shoulder, which acts as a grumpy cynic telling me to be overly critical. While in the taxi going home I told my wife Marine that I was disappointed by the Glass score. I felt it derivative of Copland, and essentially reactionary in style. Marine, rightly so, rather than rolling her eyes in the dark, put a stop to this musical elitist talk, by saying something like “isn’t beauty and symmetry through harmony a way of representing nature, whether it is “Appalachian Spring” years ago, or Philip Glass today?”

This was impossible to argue rationally. As James Watson said during his speech at the Gala, all we have is evolution. Brian Greene, in his presentation with Josh Bell gave a cosmological time line of the universe, and put the seconds of existence of humanity in prospective. Even evolution of organisms is so incredibly slow; that the time between 1944 when Copland composed “Appalachian Spring”, and Philip Glass composed his piece which was premiered last night is irrelevant in evolutionary terms. Certainly species have not changed so quickly. Why then do I make this analogy of evolution in nature to evolution in art? I expect progress. In my mind this means something unique which is representative of our present time. If the representation is nature, then isn’t our time basically the same as any other time that humans have been around? Of course it is, but for some reason I am brought back to the question of what makes humanity, this often destructive force in nature, unique and full of potential. Last night’s Gala actually gives me an answer I am content with. We are always working hard at understanding something about ourselves, and our universe. We are searching for something that we didn’t know before we read an important book, or before we took a class, or before we saw a dance concert. While evolution happens slowly, comprehension happens quickly. We experiment to understand, and are continually left with questions, and more experiments to do.

Coming back then to whether art, music in this case, needs to evolve rapidly, even when it is representing something that is evolving slowly. I think we are driven towards asking artistic questions the way we do scientific ones. That is we experiment, and find an answer, only to have another question and then do an experiment again. Like Newton, Darwin or Einstein who discovered amazing truths in their lives, it would not be enough to rediscover them now. In the same way, we need to push ourselves musically and artistically in general to see and hear something unique and new.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Momentary Perfection

Phil is the best tenor banjo player that I have ever met. I should probably apologize to the rest of the banjo players. Where it might be thought that there are not so many tenor banjo players that would be jealous of this praise, as the golden years of the tenor banjo are quickly approaching the century mark, I actually know a few. Many of them are very good at playing the 20s New Orleans style which the tenor banjo is famous for. Still, Phil is unique. Though he is a close friend of my father, and I, I know little of his non musical past. I do know that he was a very successful academic. Head of the department kind of success, but he never talks about it. Instead he talks music, and translates his ideas, which are beautiful interpretations of standards. He also sings with a floating yet crisp tenor voice; with every syllable clear enough to communicate what would have been long forgotten lyrics. I once asked him if he played the guitar, and his response was surprising. He said “I am still trying to get it right with these four strings.” Though to my ears he played perfectly, he wanted to be better, so wasn’t going to distract himself with other instruments.
I had a friend who was completely the opposite in some ways. This was Waldemar who died several years ago when he was in his 80’s. Waldemar knew everything. When I say this I almost mean it in a literal way. He could recite thousands of poems, he knew every major painting of the last 200 years, he wrote, he played piano, he was a chemist for the Manhattan project. Mostly he lectured about great people of the past and the many historical facts he knew. He was brilliant. Still he was not a master at anything. He spent a lifetime of frustration, relegated to the footnote descriptions on famous biographies, as the intellect that never produced anything original.
I wonder if these two examples are extremes, or really the struggle many of us face every day with our choices. That is whether it is better to become truly great in something, or to comprehend the greatness in others without fully achieving it ourselves. The answer seems so obvious, but is so hard for many of those of us who don’t have the focus required to pursue this kind of perfection all of the time.
I can’t do anything as well as Phil does the banjo. I play several instruments every day, and work on several scientific and business ventures. All of the time I know that I don’t have four strings of life that I have gotten right. Then I thought of this some more, and realized that it is not a choice to be a Phil or a Waldemar, but rather a perspective of what point in life you look at it. It is likely that through the thousands of days in both of these lives, there have been those when an outsider could see various types of successes. When Phil was leading a University department, and publishing as a Ph.D. in Psychology, his skills on the banjo were probably not being judged as important. When Waldemar was lecturing on Chopin, his inadequacies as a poet were not being considered. Perhaps we are all great in our ever changing moments.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Re-consolidated Theatre

When I was 21 years old, and had just come to New York for a summer of acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I became friends with a young screenwriter, who was already a success by the age of 25. I respected him a great deal, and asked him one day why he wrote for the screen and not for theatre. His answer was that “film lasts longer”. This is certainly true where an individual production comes and goes, while a film is locked, and we can watch it fresh anytime. There was another dimension to his comment which he explained to me later. He felt that while the average movie is terrible, a really great one can change your life, and you remember it forever. It lasts in us, in ways that a good play does not. There have been times when I believed this, and times when I didn’t, but what I liked most about the idea was that it gave me a new way to evaluate good art. How long I kept thinking, and talking about a piece was perhaps a measure of its importance to me. I tried to see if the recollection of a piece succeeds or fails to reanimate emotions in me. I have plays, movies, operas, ballets, jazz concerts, symphonies and paintings that all have done this, so choosing the superior art form is not a valid way to for me to evaluate its worth. Still, I keep this in mind.

This week I went to see the Trisha Brown Dance Company at BAM and one of the “The Norman Conquests” on Broadway. I left the theatre loving both of these, but now two days later I realize that it is the ballet that has the more lasting powerful effect on me. So, I would judge it to be more important. I think that there is something about this power of truly profound art, rather than simpler, but still very good art, which relates to some interesting research in neuro-science regarding a neuro-function called re-consolidation. Though I have no expertise in this, I understand the main point to be, that in creating long term memories, the brain creates a hierarchy of importance, so that the crucial memories remain. This is achieved through the strong neuron to neuron connections called synapses. Long term memories were traditionally thought to be “hard wired”, not being able to be broken, therefore not being able to be forgotten. This makes sense, as we all know older people who have lost short term memory, which can be associated with the lack of ability to create new synapses, while memories from the distant past seem perfectly clear. This is still thought to be true to an extent, however newer research into re-consolidation shows that it is not actually the original memory (or synapse) that we are accessing. Instead, as we recall a consolidated event, (one that is “hard wired”) the connection is broken and replaced by a new connection. It is re-consolidated. This suggests that we are not remembering the event, but instead remembering the last time we remembered the event. So the more we think about something, the more we are potentially moving away from the original event, but the more that memory means to us, as artifacts of the replaced connections still exist. This is being studied now at McGill, and a drug actually in trials, which can neutralize the impact of a memory, by breaking the consolidated connection. This is being proposed, and been shown to work for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After taking the drug they remember the traumatic event, but without the terrible emotional effects of the trauma.

I don’t exactly know why I thought of this research in relation to my earlier comments about the power of art, but for me the very, very mild, but extremely vivid emotional effect that art can have, and can continue to have are memories which are not frozen in time, but recreated, and re-consolidated every time I remember the event. The more times I think about Trisha Brown these next few weeks, the more likely I am to remember it when I am old.

So what about “The Norman Conquests”? It was a terrific play, which was a creative new farce. The reason I went was that friends invited my wife and I after reading the reviews, which were the hands down best reviews of anything currently playing in New York. I understand why, as there is nothing bad to say about it. The writing and directing were perfect. The acting was amazing. Still, I already don’t think about it much. The chances that I will remember this play when I am old are unlikely. This made me think about reviews in general, and I had this desire for critics to write a second review of a play 1 year after seeing it. Of course details would be wrong, but the response, I would guess, would also be very different. What sticks with the critic, and the audience, the night they see theatre is very different from the re-consolidation of it later.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Improv or Improve

There is a chance that I am becoming less mature artistically and intellectually. Then again there is a chance I am not, which is something that actually concerns me. I am not a religious person, but I do think that as we grow old we need to put away childish ways etc. Well, I am not here talking so much about my many childish ways (love of ice cream, toys, sci-fi, fast cars etc, all of which I don’t see a problem with) but rather the way I view process in art. When I was 21 years old I directed my first play, and went on to direct 10 or so others over the next few years. When I first started directing, I was just out of acting school, and had experienced some self transforming exercising in improvisation, which had changed my world view, as much as my acting(which by the way never got very good). These exercises were so powerful to me, that as a director, I would bring them into rehearsal. In fact for those first few plays, much of rehearsal was spent doing some intense improvisation. I had great actors, who never complained, and worked very hard on this. Unfortunately it left too little time to actually work on the mechanics of the play, and the result was not so good. It wasn’t long before I discovered that professional play directing was better off when you leave this kind of exploration to the actors, and instead focus on staging the most effective production possible. I don’t direct now, but if I were to, I would continue to stage the play, talk to the actors about character, but certainly not mess around with improv.
Now, 10 years later, I am performing and putting out recordings of completely improv’d free jazz music, and feeling the same emotional spirit that drove my work as a young acting student and director. So, the natural thing is to ask myself, “is this a phase in discovering something, but not the product?” I wonder how I got to this point, and realize that the cliché that life is the voyage and not a destination, is actually true, and applies where music and science are concerned.
I read many biographies and memoirs of people I respect. Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, Moss Hart, Richard Feynman, The Dali Lama, Einstein etc, and one thing is fairly common, and that is that most of them spent most of the time not working on a final product, but instead on the process. Strangely this process became a product, or revelation. Einstein dreaming of riding on a beam of light became the theory of relativity. They were often lucky to have time to play with process. It is so prevalent that I would almost say that discoveries and beautiful art only come from the type of contemplation and experimentation that could never be done in a controlled atmosphere of trying to “get the product up”. This must not be true (as major corporations innovate all of the time, on a schedule, and occasionally good plays and pop albums are also made), but it has convinced me that the process is worth it. The question remains is it worth it enough to make it the end product itself. Though I am not sure, my guess is that Da Vinci’s notebooks will be read for even more centuries than they already have been. That the Picasso, and the Renoir studies and sketches will continue to be valued by collectors. Perhaps discoveries will still be made from the late night scribbling of philosophers and scientists, or even obscure blog entries. Either way, I am going back to my youth and practicing my way through performances and experiments, in order to find something unique, about myself and the art and science I am exploring.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anticipating Music

There are two schools of thought as far as musical appreciation goes, and I am completely conflicted about which I believe. When I was in high school, my choir teacher (and still one of my closest friends, Mrs. Meinecke) was more than just a director of our small, but very dedicated choir. She was an educator in the best sense of the word. She is single handedly responsible for some of the greatest loves of my life; opera, symphonies, ballets, theatre and even history, politics and literature (also Italian wines, and osso bucco). Amazing woman. One of the ways she did this was to expose us to music, in order that we took ownership of our feelings for this art, rather than be intimidated by it. This was especially true where opera was concerned. She took us to see Verdi’s “Aida”, but only after we had studied the libretto, and listened to the score. When we actually went and saw the amazing spectacle, and the live experience, it was something we were partly familiar with, and therefore at home with. History has shown that for complicated art forms this tends to be the case. The first performance of the Ballet Russe production of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, famously premiered in 1913 in Paris, as not only one of the biggest scandals in ballet history, but one which actually caused riots in the theatre. Dancers supposedly could not even hear the orchestra over the boos and screams. Though this could have been written off as a bad work of art that audiences just hated, one year later the same piece was performed at the same theatre, by the same company, but this time to raves and applause. “Rite of Spring” is generally recognized to this day as the most important classical composition of the 20th century. How this came to be viewed so differently in one year is something that neuroscientist, popular writers and musicologists have been trying to understand. Jonah Lehrer has a chapter in his excellent book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”, dedicated to this. The outcome confirms that knowledge brings comfort, and eventually appreciation, just as Mrs. Meinecke would have predicted. So, in general I try to listen to an opera before I go to see it.

All of this said, I am changing my mind about this. In truth, most people you ask would say they would have rather been at that first production of “Rite of Spring” and not the one the following year. To be the first to hear something shocking and revolutionary is a moment that we would all like to be a part of. There is also the moment to moment discovery, which unravels itself like a mystery. Why is it that we don’t want to know how a television show or movie ends, but we are happy to know how an opera ends? Jazz is a great passion of mine, because of its complete unpredictability. For me, the more improvisation in a jazz concert, that better the experience is, as I feel that I experienced something organic and original. In opera I have also had this experience. I saw John Adams “Doctor Atomic” at the Met, and had never heard the score before and was blown away by it. (no pun intended) That can likely be explained away, as I did know the story of the making of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, and how the whole mess turned out.

Tonight Marine and I went to see Mascani’s “Cavaleria Rusticana” at the Met. Though there is a chance I had heard this music before, I had never read the libretto, and never studied the piece, having only heard some history of how the composer won a competition at the age of 25. But, I like this period of Italian Opera, (and it is the Met, which I try to go to whenever possible, with the exception of sitting through another production of Don Giovanni) so we went. I was again more moved by the piece than I could have possible expected, which made me wonder if I would have liked it better had I studied it, or as I saw it.

These questions are looming large for me, as I have a young daughter who I am trying to introduce to music. My feeling is that Mrs. Meinecke was essentially correct. My little girl tends to get even more excited about hearing music she already knows. Still, is there a time and place to throw yourself (or your little girl) into the chaos of the unknown, in the hopes of truly discovering something new.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I am just the generation, at 34 years old, to still be surprised by internet technology. Still, somehow a world of Googleing, Blogging , Twittering and Facebooking makes sense to me, as I tend to have rather jumbled thoughts, and interests. I like jumping from topic to topic, and even more I like trying to connect seemingly unrelated ideas and disciplines. It is similar to the “Six Degrees of Separation” theory of human connectivity. The same shorter sequence of connections must also exist with thoughts, and experiences. So, when I speak of two things that seem to have nothing to do with each other, the truth is they probably don’t, but it is still interesting to make the connection, and for me to see if there is any insight to be gained.

Last night I saw the play “Impressionism”, which, while likely to be forgotten (if the reviews are any indication), and though it is fairly unoriginal, it did make me think about perspective. The play deals with life and art in a way which is rather cliché, with metaphors that involve impressionist painting and real life complexity. Reflections on the need to step back to see the beauty and meaning, which the eye can not perceive when viewed too closely. It went a little further with this thought by saying that even photorealism is in itself impressionistic. It is a moment as captured by the photographer and interpreted by the viewer. The main point was to compare this to a growing love of an older couple, which is not so important to me here. So, when I left the theatre, I was neither overly impressed by “Impressionism”, nor unimpressed. It was a well acted play that again made me think about art and love, even if only in fairly commonplace ways.

This morning, after reading the reviews of “Impressionism” on the subway, I read the cover story of this month’s Scientific American. I was especially intrigued by the sub title of an article on Dark Energy which reads “Does Earth occupy a very unusual place in the Universe?”. The issue of Dark Energy and our inability to as yet accurately view it, or understand it, is an interesting one, but one that was less related to my recent experience with the play. More important is one of perspective. It has, as long as modern science has been in existence, been understood that from anyplace in the Universe the same laws of physics will apply. This has been especially well observed in recent years with accurate measurements of the microwave background. The research for this article suggests however that the place our planet resides may be unusual in the Universe. It may be in a void of sorts. It is nicely compared to a balloon, with rubber whose densities are not completely uniform. The bubble will have bumps, which do not conform to the rest of the sphere. Our Universe may, though it is still uncertain, be like this. Therefore to see ourselves as a part of the whole, our perspective would be unlike if we were viewing Earth from a far away galaxy, which may be in a different portion of the “balloon”. This is not to suggest that Physics is subjective in the same way that the Universe is. After all, there are laws, and fundamentals, even if we have not yet learned them all. The similarity though, in my mind, is the need to take a step back in order to see the truth. Maybe by doing this we can learn a little more about the big picture of the cosmos, as well as how to enjoy a night on Broadway.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Turn off The Picture

My father has an interesting custom when traveling over seas. He always turns on the movie at his seat, and watches most of it. The odd thing about this though, is that he doesn’t often even put on the headsets. He can’t read lips, as far as I know, yet he laughs at all of the right moments, or simply falls asleep. For many years I thought this was rather crazy behavior. The more I watched films though, the more I realized that this was not such a bad test of a movies worthiness. After all, film is essentially a visual art. The early films didn’t even have sound, and they didn’t need it. The highest in emotions and most hilarious of comedy were expressed without words. So, my take on my fathers approach is that he is putting contemporary cinema to the highest test. That is, if it is funny, or touching, he should be able to see it. If it is not, no need to waste anymore time. Better just to sleep.

Over the last few years, I have noticed television doing something that is completely shocking to me, and actually encouraging for me, who is a semi pro- semi\ fanatic musician, and music lover. The scores of some television are becoming so complex, that if a classical critic or patron were to ignore the show entirely, they would think that this music was the quintessential music of our age, and should be performed at Carnegie Hall. A blend of minimalism and 12 tone structure. Of electronic and of postmodern eclecticism. The shows themselves are often good too, but this phenomenon is often lost to music audiences I believe. Some really moving examples are the shows “Lost”, “Battlestar Galactica” and “Doctor Who”. There are many others as well which you may have discovered more of than me. But before some of you argue with me about the possibility that our next Beethoven or Stravinsky is doing cable TV; turn off the video and listen to any episode of the shows I mention.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mentalist Insomnia

I started watching the CBS series “The Mentalist” on a flight from Europe last week, and found that I like it a lot. I won’t go into any great detail about the premise, but in a way the show is great publicity for rational thinking and behavior. The main character is so good at reading human behavior that he was able in a previous job to become famous for being a psychic. In the show however, he is in a post blatant deception career with the police, helping them solve cases. He is not a psychic, but just very observant. This in itself is nice to see, when so much superstition is in essence promoted on TV. Still, I was most struck by another recurring event in “The Mentalist”. The hero is an insomniac. Completely unable to sleep at night, (apparently because he is haunted over the death of his wife, but that is not important to this blog) and so stays up drinking Coca-Cola, and doing his most creative work at solving homicide cases. I often can’t sleep, and love the idea that those hours between midnight and 7 can be spent doing important work, but I have never found this to be true. I can’t really focus, and often just watch youtube videos, and old episodes of “Doctor Who”. I haven’t seen all of the episodes of “The Mentalist”, so I am not sure if he ever took sleeping pills, but I do take them from time to time, and have found that my nighttime experience is completely different. The type of sleeping pill I take is Ambien, which I was prescribed a year or so ago. Normally I just take it and go to bed, but there has been the occasion when I have not fallen asleep straight away, and the strangeness irony occurs. I am more tired and ready to sleep than ever, but I become inspired to work. I am more creative. This creativity doesn’t last long, because I do fall asleep, but I always find this frustrating. An even more interesting thing about this is that a common side effect of Ambien is a mild form of amnesia. I have found this to be true. So not only I am having what I think are good ideas, which I can’t complete because I am too tire, but I also forget what the ideas were the next morning.

Several months after I started taking Ambien I read a study about a man who was in a vegetative state for 4 years. He only moaned, and not in a way that was expressing himself at all. His mother, wanting him, and herself to rest, gave him an Ambien, and to everyone’s surprise, he did not fall to sleep, but instead came out of the comma. He is still using Ambien as therapy to stay conscious.

So I wonder if late night productivity can be found somewhere between Coca-Cola and Ambien, or if it is best just to get some sleep and work well before night comes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Solo in Time

Marine and I went to see "Solo in Time", the Savion Glover piece at the Joyce last night. It was a musical, as much as theatrical event, that makes most others feel timid, tame and lifeless. Savion is what Jackson Pollack was to painting, or Thelonius Monk to Jazz. He is complete in commitment to experiment and expression. This type of hard hitting dedication, where subtlety exists only because of complexity, not from false tenderness, is what I strive to achieve (always coming up short), and wish for my daughter. For her to sing in full voice, play the drums in her own rhythms, and scribble outside the lines. Then with years of practice at the art of being herself, she can hopefully achieve, at least privately, what Savion shared with us.