Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Facing Eternity In San Francisco

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

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Will Thinking in Pop Culture

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Specializing in Everything

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hair and Bass in an Age of Apathy

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

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

POÄNG or Wassily

Would IKEA be the utopia of 20th century modernism? Is it the populist achievement of revolutionary Bauhaus design, the architecture industrialization of Mies Van der Rohe, and the physical embodiment of Mondrian minimalism? At first glance, or from some distant academic watch tower it would appear so. IKEA would also seem to be an internationalist victory of sorts. The Swedish behemoth offers sleek design, at cheap prices, and nearly everyone goes there at some point to either buy furnishings for a dorm room, a first apartment, a baby’s room, or for some of us a seemingly lifetime of bookshelves and dressers.
This summer I visited Weimar Germany, where my main tourist goals were to see the Goethe and Schiller homes. Still, having taken a great Bauhaus class at MoMA in 2005, my friends and I visited the Bauhaus museum, which was the site of the original Bauhaus school and studios. The Bauhaus is interesting as it was really the combination of industrial means, towards high art, for the purpose of providing design for all of society. It moved away from its original arts and crafts ideas to do this, and produced some of the most recognizable furniture and architecture that we associate with the 20th century. The museum was interesting in both its contrast to Goethe’s romanticism, and its large picture similarities. That is Goethe was a singular artist and scientist, but was a populist in many ways. Bauhaus did the same, but for a new age in which individualism was being replaced by group efforts politically, such as communism, and consumer industrialization such as cars. The Bauhaus artists were futurists as much as modernists, in that they were predicting a future of modularity, simplicity and raw form. How nice it would be to see them as the prophets of this institution, IKEA, which so many of us use?

I believe however that IKEA representatives one of two options where the Bauhaus prophecy is concerned. In the first IKEA is the future that the Bauhaus had predicted and influenced, and it manages to fill me with emptiness and anxiety, or this is not at all what the Bauhaus had actually wanted, and I would therefore be drinking schnapps with Walter Gropius and complaining of long days shopping, and weekends with Allen wrenches.

My dislike for IKEA comes with a certain amount of both guilt and plain old self doubt. After all I should be happy for IKEA and all of the shoppers who have filled their homes with those products. The stuff looks nice and it’s cheap. The problem for me is that it sucks the creativity of choosing a living place, creating instead a delusion. We feel that we are going to IKEA, which is a gigantic warehouse, and can choose the furniture that is right for us. In fact though, everyone who is even a little bit like us will buy many of the same things. We have friends with the same pieces we have. My daughter’s bed is the same as her friend’s bed. As Pete Seeger laminated in his song about suburbanization called “Little Boxes”, he sings “they all look just the same”. 

The possibility that this is not what the Bauhaus envisioned is also very convincing. The need to assemble cheap particle board for hours is not the same as mass producing a Bauhaus chair and selling them as a complete chair. Another key difference to me is the IKEA inclusive look, which I do not relate to Bauhaus. That is, people buy all of their furniture from one store, so the styles are basically all the same, even though the designs are called something different. Bauhaus and other twentieth century minimalism stressed repeatability and simplicity, but every artist had a unique interpretation of what that was. Mondrian and Malevich were geometrical but nothing alike, as are Eames chairs and Wassily chairs.

This all may be me again putting off IKEA assembly, while my wife slaves away at them. It might also be that I am a snob, and would like to buy more expensive furniture. I don’t think though that either of these is the main reason. Mostly IKEA causes me anxiety, and I am trying to understand how such a nice place with such a nice philosophy can do that to me, even though I love to eat meat balls and drink lingonberry juice. I think it is because I recognize that there is something cynical about IKEA. It is a dream, and idea and now a way a life, which is based not on creativity and people, but the perception that it is. The Bauhaus may have been for the masses, but it was designed with care and creativity by individuals. IKEA is a mega company of committee design led by market analysis and quarterly stock valuations. This is not to say that it isn’t useful. It is just a not the dream store of the Bauhaus or me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An Eternal Thinker

There must be hundreds of reasons why people collect art. It can be as investment or as inspiration. It can be as a way to see a reflection of yourself or society. It can be a way to remind you of human potential, or of human folly. It can be to surround yourself with beauty, or contrast with nature’s beauty in order to appreciate the space in which the art rests. One thing that I think this wide dispersion of reasons has in common is speculation. That is speculation on the monetary value of a work of art or on its influence on you. Both of these are ways of peering into the future. There is also something unique about bronze sculptures. Bronze is as close to eternal as humans know. Bronze will outlive not only us, but outlive canvas, outlive paint and could be one of the few archeological treasures of future alien visitors who will find only this art as a reminder of humanity.

My family bought a sculpture from my friend, the artist Mark Pilato, which is titled “The Modern Day Thinker”. Though you have no doubt seen the photo of it here on this blog, if you had not, your first thought would be to notice the reference to the famous work of Rodin called simply the “Thinker”. Rodin’s “Thinker” needs no description as it is one of the most famous sculptures of any period. Rodin must have created this work in a moment where time stood still long enough for it to neither exist in modernity or antiquity, but rather in universality. The “Thinker” is a strong man. He is a worker, hardened by labor, but confounded by self reflection not by action. I can think of nothing more meaningful to the struggles of humans, who more than any other animal are lost in their own silent ideas after the labors of days that fail to fill the empty space which surrounds consciousness.  “The Modern Day Thinker” is equally as timeless, but seems to push beyond physical constraints in ways that Rodin did not intend with his own work. In this work the Thinker is feminine, but not a woman or a man. The Modern Day Thinker is sexually provocative, but without sex. I refer to the piece as she because I do not want to reduce her form to an “it” merely because we cannot readily acknowledge gender. Her thinking differs from the Rodin "Thinker". It  is not the thinking of someone filling the void left after physical effort as in Rodin’s sculpture, but is thinking to fill the entirety of existence.  This may very well come from Mark’s admiration for Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. This Modern Day Thinker is like Virgil trapped in Limbo, eternally gazing upward to paradise, while forever unable to make that journey. This gaze is not so much a gaze since “The Modern Day Thinker” has no eyes, but instead only an ethereal gesture of anticipation through inward reflection.

 If it is true that collecting art is about speculation, and that bronze is near eternal, how can we imagine our finite lives and the infinity of the art? “The Modern Day Thinker” embraces the paradox inherent in this question. Her geometry is both a minimalist reduction, and mathematically complex. Unlike sharp edges which can easily be solved, “The Modern Day Thinker” wraps, warps and curves its way through space. Maybe this is why she is so beautiful to me. She makes me contemplate and speculate on the future, but leaves enough mystery to make that future ambiguous and exciting.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How to win a chili making contest

Sammy Davis loved to cook. When I first heard how dedicated he was to cooking it surprised me, because he was always traveling on tours, and filming. Usually this lifestyle is a restaurant based existence, but Sammy traveled with all of his pots and pans and knifes. Many of his friends commented on what a good cook he was, including Bill Cosby, who said that Sammy was a true gourmand. He never used recipes or wrote down what he had done. Instead Cosby said that if Sammy made a truly remarkable meal you had to merely live with the memory of it, as he would never be able to recreate a dish. I heard this quote when I was a teenager, which was the same time I was having similar experiences at home, where my father (who was new to the kitchen) began to approach cuisine with a gusto of invention, which was inspired by his travels to Mexico, Asia, Europe and Israel. At the time there was only one thing repeatable in Dad’s cooking which was that everything was extremely spicy, which served to separate the men from the boys, or in our case those that had ulcers already, from those that would soon be getting them. Dad was not the only improvisational cook around.  I was soon to discover underground chefs in my home town of Akron, many of them men, who were not simply weekend baroque beer drinkers. This was before the cooking television craze, which seems to have made gourmets of couch potato corn dog eaters. In my view though this small unsung group of hard working friends from my community was much more interesting, as was the food they made. Someone who comes to mind was a long time engineer at our family company Tech Pro. This engineer Don Watson and I would spend a lot of time at company parties, not talking sports, or technology, but rather cooking. Don had tweaked traditional Akron cuisine like Picasso did African masks, making it his own expression. Though I should in good taste keep Don’s reputation intact, as well as the other great cooks at Tech Pro who were in the same tradition such as Harold Vunderlink, I cannot go without mentioning the fact that I married someone who was more than up to the challenge of competing in an area which these others were truly experts in; chili making.

I had of course eaten chili my whole life, but my wife Marine, being from France had not, nor had either of us ever made it before. We entered our company chili making contest as extreme underdogs for the Halloween contest of 2005. To our surprise, Marine and I won. A competition like this is subjective of course, and it is not certain that we deserved the award against such formidable competitors, but I did learn something from this which I keep in mind in most things I do. Marine didn’t have preconceptions of a good chili, only a rough idea of the ingredients normally used. Therefore she made impromptu substitutions, which made the chili unique. She used black beans, instead of red. She used Cilantro and crème fresh. She used tofu burgers instead of hamburger. This was a proud day for us.

This is why I don’t like cooking shows. They are like those old painting television shows I remember as a child, where a very boring artist teaches how to paint a beautiful landscape. They are false, and lack spontaneity. Cooking is now like every prepackaged food, only slightly longer to prepare. My suggestion is an outing of the closeted cooks in companies, who labor by day and invent masterpieces in the kitchen by night. As I have said about free-jazz, poetry, origami, graffiti, science and living in general, the true innovation will come from a mix of intellect, intuition and chance. For this reason I keep picking out new vegetables and meats hoping to stumble across the next great meal or even a chili.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is the Margin the Whole Page?

In 2008 I wrote a blog about the feeling of being marginalized by the things I do, such as polymer physics, free-jazz and experimental theatre and poetry. I wasn’t so much feeling sorry for myself, but rather just confused by how humans can be so alike, yet have such a broad dispersion of interests. Since I wrote this I am starting to see that marginalization is being moved from its long history of being outside of the box of societal norms, into a new type of box, where the most bizarre, funny, brilliant and creative people go. This box is not full of financial rewards. It is instead a place of self esteem, minor recognition and community.  It is easiest to see this when looking at the connectivity made possible through social networks. Clay Shirky in his new book “Cognitive Surplus” provides dozens of examples of groups who have found homes on Facebook, Nings, and fan sites. Through this he says that whether you are interested in macramé or sci-fi comic books, you will have a group of likeminded friends to virtually share with. Even Jaron Lanier, who is critical of Web 2.0 style mob mentality networking, is a part of a rare instruments forum, where he can share his own music and collections with others who respect this music like he does. Shirky and Lanier, like bloggers and traditional journalists, differ about how far this should and does go. Shirky feels strongly, and quotes academic studies, that show that people are perfectly willing to do things they care about without financial reward. If we replace the time we spend watching TV, with time spent on our hobbies, there is no financial loss, just self esteem gain. Lanier is not convinced that taking professionalism out of all media and creation in general is a good idea, as it lowers the overall quality, and gives wealth to those who are not doing the creating, such as large corporations and advertisers. Both make strong points, and this is an internal argument I will continue to have.

What interests me even more, is the underlying psychology with finding deeper meaning in things that society has generally considered fringe behavior. This may very well be internet enabled but it is not strictly an internet phenomena. My wife and I saw and intriguing Argentinean film yesterday called “Puzzle”.  The premise of the movie is extremely simple. A 50 year old woman, who has taken care of her husband and late teenage sons, receives a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday. Not being able to sleep she tries the puzzle, and realizes how fulfilling it is to do puzzles. She then searches for puzzles, and finds a wealthy puzzle master who teaches her how to be a competitive jig saw puzzle player. I won’t give away the rest, but there really isn’t much more to it, yet this film is strangely moving, and speaks to the contemporary sentiment of self realization through formally marginalized activities.

A margin on a page in general a small portion of a page. Maybe though margins in society are not margins at all. Maybe they actually are the whole page. Perhaps I am not so odd in the activities I like, or maybe I am common because everyone has odd activities that appeal to them?  I hope that this continues to lead to self empowerment for everyone, and if I am lucky others will be join me in my passion for polymer physics, and free-jazz!

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Skeptical Anarchist

If I look over my blogs and Facebook posts, I realize that two topics tend to come up more often than others: superstition and free expression. Though I have made attempts to connect a number of ideas together in the past, I think I have failed to unite these two accurately, mainly because I think that there are enough internal contradictions that I am disposed to what I condemn; belief. The belief I am speaking of is the creation of order through chaos. The music I like, and play is free, even anarchistic in form. There is very little applied structure, yet when analyzed later by critics, musicians and listeners of any kind cohesion can be found, even if that unity wasn’t intended. This happens all of the time to me. I speak with a musician, and compliment them on the use of spectral dissonance through harmonic clustering, or something pretentious like that, only to hear “we were just jamming at midnight.” Now that doesn’t make my analysis wrong, or the intent wrong, but it does suggest that I am deeply involved in trying to mentally connect dots, even though the dots were actually laid out randomly.

 The wonderful documentary film “Between The Folds”, explores a world of extremely serious origami artists and scientists, which I had no idea existed. This group includes a range of people, from the compulsive paper folder who creates life like animals with over 1000 folds, to an MIT mathematician who uses origami techniques to solve some of math’s most difficult questions to a group of style improvisers of the form, which the film calls The Anarchists. The absolutely contradictory styles of the Mathematician and the Anarchists especially appeals to me. The Mathematician concentrates on the perfection of each fold in relation to consecutive folds. He uses computer models to enhance this. While this may seem crazy, in doing so he was able to not only solve some esoteric mathematics theories, but even practical ones, like the most efficient way to fold an airbag for car safety. The Anarchists by contrast bunched and folded paper in completely random chaotic ways. It is the free jazz of origami, and like free jazz they create something that is both highly interesting, and also complex when analyzed. The forms they create may or may not resemble figures, but they do have inherently enlightening results at their best. The Anarchists even perform improvised experiments on the completed forms, like seeing the effect of sunlight over time, or water, or heat. You in a sense viscerally learn things that the mathematician would have trouble formulating.

The fascination with these two approaches is what leaves my time partially in the quantitative and experimental world of applied physics, and partially in the anarchistic world of free jazz and surrealist poetry. Somehow I think that by doing both I will be able to recognize patterns that are unique and surprising. Though I suppose that there is nothing wrong with this, there may be nothing right about it either. In his recent TED Talk, the great skeptic Michael Shermer points out that animals (humans included of course) are predisposed to search for patterns, even when they do not exist. There is good Darwinian reasons for this because the problems with not seeing patterns in life and death situations are more immediately life threatening. He speaks of a predator/prey situation. When an animal has before heard a predator rustling leaves, he learns to run. Therefore even if he hears the wind rustle leaves, he is likely to run. He may have been wrong, but it was safer to be wrong. With more highly evolved pattern recognition we can arrive at misinterpreted correlations, which in turn can do harm.  Decisions made about education, food, weapons and drugs, which are based on false pattern recognition can do a great deal of harm, and do all of time. In fact Shermer points out that we are not even all that good at recognizing patterns. We see patterns in everything, and not always the correct ones, as he shows with some slides of dots, some of which have embedded figures and some nothing. People will see figures where none exist, see wrong ones where they do, and sometimes get it right. All is possible with our limited abilities.

So what is the point of all of this introspection about my own abilities at pattern recognition? Perhaps it is to enjoy the anarchy even when there is no pattern to be found. There is truth in its own right in chaos, where our thoughts and anxieties so often reside. Then, perhaps some lucky time useful patterns will emerge that will allow a communication between reasoning and freedom. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Life of The Party

It should have been that the most offensive thing I did for the World Science Festival was to write a blog criticizing the Templeton Foundation, and the invitation of Francis Collins ( Though I don’t really feel much differently about the fact that a religious fundamentalist should not be the most powerful government funder of science, I do think that I may have been too hard on the science festival. I went to the Collins event “Our Genomes, Ourselves”, and thought it was thought-provoking, and completely scientific. Collins did not appear to be an extremist. What I really regret though is that even though this year’s festival was so wonderful, and my family was involved in a number of ways, I still managed to be on the obnoxious side at the Jazz Party that my wife and I were hosting. The issue was that our featured band “Wake Up!” who I consider the best live band in New York was well-liked, but several people complained that the music was too loud. Instead of being a gracious host I said things like “if you don’t want to stay, no one is forcing you.” I did this for two reasons, as inexcusable as they may be. The first is that the music is so important to me that I wanted to share it with the World Science Festival which is also very important to me. It made me think that these people who wanted it quieter did not appreciate the brilliance of the band, and that frustrated me for artistic reasons. The other reason is more unreasonable, which is that I think music should be loud.

My visceral response to loud/quality music is certainly not unique to me. The desire to create music which has a level which physically alters the surrounding through power and volume goes at least as far back as Vivaldi and Bach. At St. Thomas in Leipzig Germany where Bach was the music director for much of his life, he spent a great deal of time raising the funds for large pipes for the organ. The purpose of large pipes is similar to the purpose of large sub woofers that people put in their cars. It is so that you feel the low tones. Bach combined this with as many pipes of various sizes as possible in order to have such a sound that the “Passions” were truly passionate. The floors, walls and ceiling of St. Thomas shook with beautiful, stunning and yes…loud music.

I do want to make it clear that I don’t think Bach was equivalent to a car stereo system. There is something moving about the live experience. I also think this is true of “Wake Up!” which played unamplified at this party. I also don’t think that Bach or “Wake Up!” wanted to inflict pain. If the experience is actually painful, as it may have been for some, then that is a problem. Instead it is more a question of focus. While a party is about being with other people, if music is the centerpiece of that party it must also be the most present participant in the room.

Another example of having music which is felt, rather than just heard comes from the inventor of the phonograph. Thomas Edison had very poor hearing to begin with, yet he was able to go to concerts and hear the music. Just hearing it was not enough for him. Once he invented the phonograph, he would literary bite down on the frame of the machine in order to feel the sound. As strange as this sounds, we know that the human ear in its present form is a rather recent evolutionary development. Mammals used to do much of their hearing though interpretations of vibrations in their bones, eventually (like Edison) in their jaws. This was naturally a survival mechanism at the time, as mammals needed to hear dangers coming from nocturnal predators. Since early instruments came so early to humans, it is likely that music has always been both felt and heard.

This doesn’t excuse my rudeness, but it does explain my priorities a bit. The World Science Festival is successful because of its highly engaging blend of arts and sciences, and its ability to do this without dumbing down either the science or the art. Furthermore the audiences really do come from various backgrounds, unlike most conferences. At the Armitage Dance Event associated with the Festival, the moderator of the science discussion Steve Mirsky following the performance took an informal poll of the audience, asking who comes from the arts, and who from science. The audience appeared almost equally divided. This is such an inspiring and hopeful sign. My desire for people to feel the power of a new form of musical expression comes from the same place as my desire for people to hear Stephen Hawking, or watch Armitage’s dance. Like those two things it is important, and can’t be done quietly.

Friday, May 7, 2010

An Open Apple a Day

Probably the most over debated topic of the last month has been about Apple computer culture versus a more open computing culture. I have wasted my time on this on a number of websites. I think that the reason I became so interested in this is because somehow I was trying to work out for myself some more fundamental questions about  technology, art and modern society in general, which just happen to come together in this particular debate. The broader discussion has not been so much about the I-Pad versus a range of existing and potential competitors, but instead deals with something that we all feel much more personally invested in; expression. The argument can be boiled down to two philosophies, which I now maintain are less transparent than we think. Apple philosophy is based on control and intellectual property. This can be seen in three famous ways; the fee based system for buying media content, the Apple Apps system which prevents any application not approved by Apple to be used and Apple’s choice to not support Adobe Flash. This has been portrayed as an opposition to Google which promotes a more open culture in most ways. My instinct was to oppose the Apple closed structure. After all I love the idea that anyone can develop anything. I like the idea of an open internet culture. The problem I find though is that neither model is completely satisfying, as the fruits of contemporary content and creativity are now lost on opposing business models, rather than the creations themselves. There are two examples, both of which are personally both frustrating to me. The first is scientific knowledge.

Yesterday I spoke at a seminar with 5 other speakers in Paris, all of whom work in a very similar field to mine, which is the physics of polymers. I left the meeting with one thought, which is that everyone should be required to go to a scientific conference, regardless of whether they are scientists. In this group, despite the daily work I do, or Ph.D. I have, I was challenged and confused. The basic science of my field is so complex that no matter how much I work in it; there is an infinity of knowledge to be gained. By the way, it is not irrelevant to this that polymers like plastic and rubber (the things we were presenting on) make up so much of our world. It may not be important for everyone to understand the models, equations and experiments that all of these scientists were working with, but to know that there are people working on them at least gives the possibility of a deeper appreciation for them.

This reminds me of the Apple Google debate because our debating is basically from an uniformed user perspective. We don’t know how Apple or Google do what they do. We use these products every day, and even debate the validity of the ideology of them without understanding how the engineers and business leaders at these companies manipulate data and perception in order to profit. This is not to say that they shouldn’t be profiting, just that it is hard to judge a particular philosophy as superior if we come from a place of ignorance. Even if we look at what we do know the situation becomes more complicated than at first glance. Apple makes their money by selling products, whether it is I-Pads, I-Phones, and computers, or paid downloads of music, movies, apps and books. How and who makes these may be secretive, but what it is we are buying is not. Google by contrast gives away most of what it has. Google makes money through advertisement. This may seem innocent enough, but all of the algorithms Google uses for everything from search to books are controlled by proprietary algorithms, which if they are serving their customer (the advertiser) will benefit their customer (the advertiser). This example is to point out the complexity of choosing a moral high ground and the basis of openness. It is also to say that we should all dig a little deeper because it is interesting and enlightening to do so.

The second point is not scientific or economic at its core, but rather artistic. I am reading the book “You Are Not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier I am not sure how much of this book I agree with, but it is very thought provoking. One of the points he makes is a criticism of open computing culture in its ability to generate and promote originality. He mentions a belief that the last decade has failed to produce a unique musical style, which has not been true in one hundred years or more. I agree with this, even though it is impossible to quantify. Generally the access to music has been good for exposure, but has created such a mix and remix of styles that even new music sounds retro. That is not to say that there is not new music or new styles available. I work with a group called Wake Up! I think is very new. The problem is how that will be perceived when there is so much to sample. It is a game of statistics. The more music that is available the more the average will be the same. The outliers will be ignored, rather than seen as visionaries. This applies to the Apple Google debate as well, since the two models of music distribution will push listeners in one direction or the other. Wake Up! Seems to be trying to be a part of both camps, which is what it must do in order to be responsible to its own mission. They are giving their music away for free by playing in parks, and on their website. They are also selling it on I-Tunes. My worry is that neither system is supportive of the new; the hive mentality or the micro managed authorities. This makes the struggle to get new music heard exiting, as the possibility exists to work with and without the system, but the problem of finding an audience more difficult, as there is a new paradigm which is more concerned with the system of distribution than with the content itself.

This is all to say that I, and many others on the internet, am spending too much time arguing about how something is presented to us, than what is being presented. We care whether it is advertiser, stock market, or consumer based revenue, rather than the technology or the content. I don’t have answers, other than that we need to think and listen in retro ways. That is we need to look at the technology not just as users but as scientists. We need to listen to music and make music like people who love discovering music that represents us best. We need however to take chances in new ways. We need to ignore the new common wisdom, rather it is Google “openness” or Apple “sleekness”, and focus instead on what we want to say, see and hear. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Acting Out in the Age of The Cloud

It is a strange time that life has become a stage for most of us, in ways that are more concrete and less metaphorical than Shakespeare refers to in Hamlet. We may have always been mere actors. Now as I write these blogs nearly every week, as millions of other people do,  I am performing, or at least expressing myself, for audiences all of the time, even though I never actually go on a stage anymore. This has not always been the case for me. Actually, I tried to be an actor and found that the experience was completely different depending on the size of the audience, and who was in that audience, more so than my own performance. This may very well have been due to my inadequacies as an actor.

In 1995 I had just finished two years of studying in a musical conservatory. Mostly that means taking classes and practicing alone in a room (that is the school part at least. I did my fair share of college dorm parties as well). I also had the chance to be in operas, concerts, and musicals. I loved being on stage, despite the fact that I never played major roles, and looked for every chance the college or the community in Ohio where I lived gave me. I started to look outside of music, and did a few plays, rather unsuccessfully. Acting is a very personal art form when done correctly. It is not so much about performing, but rather about empathy. It is important to relate to your character and the others on stage. I am an empathetic guy, but I am also easily distracted by my own anxieties. I could never get the audience out of my mind. A close friend, Jenn Gambatese, who was going to NYU had recently left the formal study of musical theatre, and started training in an intense acting method called the Meisner technique. She explained the technique, and together we did some of the exercises. It was inspiring to me, because in those exercises I wasn’t acting at all, but rather connecting with someone else in a moment that was often emotionally charged. That summer I went to New York to study this technique further at a small acing school called the Neighborhood Playhouse. There were very few college acting students in my class. Mostly they were models who were trying to transition to acting or former childhood television stars who were trying to grow up and be serious adult actors. The classes were everything I had hoped they would be. In fact I did very well in them, as I took my teacher’s advice and didn’t act at all. Rather I was myself in either an improvisation or a scene. Since it was only a summer class we never had the chance to go as far as actually becoming a character that was so different than ourselves that research was required. Still I went back for a final year in Ohio, prepared to finish my degree and hurry to New York for a career on the stage. Though I would finish and move to New York, I had an experience during that last year which made me realize that I would likely not be an actor.

Because I had such a good experience at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I had picked up an acting agent who was not ready to exactly take me on, but to at least try me out with some auditions. He called me in Ohio and asked if I could be in New York the next day for a terrific opportunity, which was to audition for a lead role in a new Neil Simon play which was going to Broadway. The agent faxed the portion of the script I would be using for the audition to me at my school. I picked up my mother who agreed to help me out, got in the car and drove to New York. My mom and I practiced the scene in the car.  I was unreasonably confidant that the role was perfect for me. I went to the audition and in front of me were the director and Neil Simon himself, as well as two other people I didn’t recognize. I did the scene very poorly with another actor, and the director gave me some notes, and asked me to try again. The second time I was even worse. They thanked me for coming, and I left the room. I wouldn’t admit this to anyone out of embarrassment, but I knew I would never be a professional actor after that. While I was good in class, I could not even be convincing in front of even that small audience, let alone an entire theatre.

I think that being a good actor is a very rare talent, as it is so much unlike what we are used to. If he is empathetic, as an actor must be, how can he take into account all of the feelings of the other actors on stage and the audience as well? It is just too much to think about simultaneously when you need to be impulsively in the moment of a scene. This kind of exposure is not for everyone, yet many of us now do it much more frequently than we used to, even when we are not seeking acting careers. The speed at which we blog, and tweet, and group IM, and receive comments and responses requires an emotional and intellectual vulnerability that only artists, such as actors were exposed to in the past. This is often criticized, just as actors are criticized, as being self indulgent. Perhaps it is in a sense, but it also, like acting, requires empathy. Millions of us are forced to think about audiences and collaborators in new ways which in turn makes our writing more profound at its best. Even at its worst it is an attempt to live more fully. Perhaps that part of us that is attracted by actors is those emotions, and that vulnerability. The technology available to us lets us all do that without subjecting audiences in a theatre, or playwrights in an audition to painfully bad performances. On the other hand we may very well be compensating for a lack of direct contact.

Last week I went to the Abramavic show at MoMa in New York, which in so many ways succeeded better in being art and theatre than any class or stage production. The first piece is simply the artist herself sitting at a table. Visitors can wait in line to sit across the table from her. Once you are in that seat, it is a wordless communication, which is unique with each coupling, even though the setting never changes. I was told that one visitor sat through an entire 8 hours with the artist.

So can we achieve anything similar to this through blogs, and comments, or is there something about being alive that manifests itself only in person? Is this what I had hope to achieve as a college actor? I am not sure.  This is one reason that I also play improvisational piano with groups of other musicians. Finding connections through art and writing has many new opportunities. Whether we take them or not is the challenge.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Does Creativity Require a Day Job

About ten years ago I had a conversation over a beer (or a few) with the poet John Greiner, who is also a very close friend of mine. Actually some of the thought provoking conversations on art, philosophy, food and drink have been with John on a Friday afternoon in a bar in Manhattan.  This particular lament was over the fate of the poet as an occupation. I had assumed that John was unhappy by the fact that it is impossible to make a living as a poet. This seems unfair from a values perspective to me. Poetry has always been one of humanities purest ways of communicating the personal, the natural, the political and the spiritual. If you were to judge a culture; its sculptures, paintings and poetry are of fairly equal importance. Doesn’t Homer tell us more about the ancient Greek imagination, and Dante of late medieval Italy than any business of that time? In 20th century life cinema has also made a lasting impression in the artistic landscape.  All of these other art forms though have the potential of making the artist a lot of money. The artist Jeff Koon’s is a muti millionaire from his contemporary sculptures. Even playwrights like David Mamet are very wealthy due to royalties from plays. Steven Spielberg is a billionaire. There is an obvious difference with poetry, which is that the sales of poetry don’t fit into the capitalist incentive structure of these other arts. It is hard to build reputation with a poem, even with sufficient hype, that can be monetized. Sotheby’s doesn’t auction off the latest book of poetry. Poetry readings aren’t shown on prime time television. So, the inability of poets to make a living writing poetry is fair in a market system, but such economic theory rarely gets in the way of John and my utopian dreams of the purpose of art. What he said surprised me. He said that it is better that the poet can’t earn a living with poetry. TS Elliot worked as a banker and editor. Many poets work as teachers. John said that even though he is a poet, he didn’t resent not being paid much for his poetry. From what I remember, (sorry John if I get this wrong) he said that by not having a financial motivation, the writing was uncompromised by money. Also, working other jobs keeps you an active part of society, which feeds the expression in the poems. This conversation, which we have had more times throughout the years, has not only stuck with me, but in some ways inspired me to publish my own poems.

Since that time ten years ago, much has changed due to technology, which puts other more traditional types of writing in much the same boat as poetry has been. Journalism is no longer what it used to be, as newspaper revenues suffer, and staff is being eliminated. Writers are turning to new media, like blogs, where they are not paid. There is original thought, and a very democratic freedom to this expression, but for millions of people writing essays, commentary and criticism, it is for the pure love of doing it, not to make a living. Photography is another example. A high art, where photographers were rewarded well, has become a vehicle for amateurs. Or perhaps the amateurs are becoming professionals, but just aren’t getting paid for it. The open source movement in software design is even like this. All of this concerns me in some ways, as I have always said that the ability to sell art is important in validating art. This is not to say that the amount attached to the acquisition is equal to the quality, just that it is one way to show that the artist is dedicated to an audience. This is one of the biggest questions of our time. How do incentives affect quality, and how do they reflect our values as a society? I don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps John and I will solve this over a few pints when I return from Paris.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

You Are Not Your Avatar

I responded to an article in the New York Review of Books about James Cameron,  and his exploration of what it means to be human. I have not just heard this talked about with Cameron lately, but it is an old, tired, but still somehow mainstream philosophy-light concept. I have mentioned in my blogs before that I think there is no place in modern thought for mind body duality. We know one thing with near certainty, which is that the mind (the brain) is an organ in the body. A separation from it has been speculated on by philosophers such as Plato and Descartes, but neither of these brilliant men had the tools for understanding the brain the way we do now. While the big question, the one of why we are conscious at all, is still being debated and studied, the neuro-physical partnership is well understood. I was in Athens this week and had the strong feeling that despite mythological gods and beasts, and Plato’s elevation of the mind over the body, the Greeks in general did understand the physical nature of being. The sculptures depict athletic beauty in ways that are so convincing that it is impossible to remove the mind from the physicality. In fact I would argue that theatre itself is a dedication to mind body singularity. The transformation of characters to people, is an example of muscular and memory cognition. It is also why two actors never play a role the same way.

It is understandable that we are questioning these ideas again. For once a virtual world seems actually possible. Even contemplating the downloading of the entire brain seems one day likely, as computer memory increases. The Avatar in Cameron’s film is farfetched, but not impossible. I would like to propose that a very different outcome though would occur, if it were possible to separate mind from body, in the Avatar sense. The resulting person would be nothing like us. Imagine how we change even in our own bodies. When we are sick for instance. Or when we are drunk. Or when we break a bone. To speculate on having a whole new body, other than brain is hard but not impossible. A paraplegic who was paralyzed in an accident essentially takes on a new body. The one thing that they don’t do however is take on a new brain, whether that brain is biological, as in Avatar, or a computer. If this were to happen axons would be farther from certain receptors, synapses would happen differently. Memory would last for different amounts of time, as all tissue behaves differently. Perception would be different. In essence we would not be ourselves. We could not remove our body from our mind. This doesn’t mean it would not be a fun thing to try, and I am game if anyone wants to try after my demise, but I just don’t think the new me will be my charming self.

This actually came to me in a rather decadent moment, while I was sitting in a spa in Athens. Sitting in spas in Athens is a great experience, because wrapped in those towels, with a foot bath, you really do not feel so far away from the baths Sophocles may have been taking while listening to Plato ramble on about a better republic. What I thought though, was how much the relaxation of my body affected my mind. Surely the Greeks thought of this too. When the water is bubbling, or you are having a message, it is nice to be yourself, not an Avatar.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Insanity or Persistence?

The power of a word to invoke emotions is certainly evident in the word insanity. There are 10 normal definitions for this, all of which are familiar, having to do with lack of mental health, court room pleas and your run of the mill "craziness". The definition that I have known for about 6 years now is one that was first credited to one of my heroes Albert Einstein. He said that the " definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". The reason I am familiar with this connotation of insanity is that it is the one that is explored in a movie that my wife and I were Associate Producers for, which is just now available on DVD called "The Definition of Insanity". The film deals with the stubborn passion of a talented actor who endures torturous loss of integrity, family and even mental stability in the pursuit of succeeding in the only thing he feels he must do. In one important scene, he compares his acting with a disability. This is so self analytical that the character reveals both intelligence and an insightfulness that makes us see a depth in his personality that is very profound.

The fact that this particular definition of insanity was originally Einstein's is not acknowledged in the film, but since the film was made, I haven't been able to get it off of my mind. I often wonder why Einstein addresses insanity in this way, as his most famous contributions in special and general relativity were not insane at all. In fact both have been shown to be accurate throughout many experiments. So he didn't fail at this by doing the same thing over and over. Though this is true in looking at a snapshot of that particular success, when looking at a long shot of Einstein's life we see some of the insanity he described, and not just in his wild hair. Amongst people interested in 20th century science, Einstein is not only known for his successes. He is also known for his insistent denial of the century's other biggest breakthrough, which is the probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics. Einstein actually won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to Quantum Mechanics. Still he could never take the ultimate step, which was theorized by Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and Born. They had theorized that momentum and position of electrons and other sub atomic particles could never be located simultaneously, and with certainty. This theory has been tested thousands of times, leaving little doubt to its validity. Still, Einstein despite his rigor and genius famously said of the theory "god does not play dice with the universe". Not meaning God as a deity, but believing in a deterministic beauty of the cosmos was key to how Einstein viewed the universe. He could not break with this view, no matter how many times he tried. In other words using his own definition he was "insane". When challenged about this seemingly denialist view, Einstein would say that there were hidden variables that Quantum Uncertainty was missing. He wanted to find those, but even if he didn't he felt they were there.

Finding the hidden variables for the meaning of life is both what Einstein wanted, and what the main character in "Definition of Insanity" wants. In fact that desire, without the label of insanity, is often considered a kind of persistence that is admired; the actor trying to understand himself and others through characters, and the scientist trying to understand the universe through mathematics and observation. The difficulty becomes knowing when to stop. At what point does daily reality, like family and happiness, trump eternal questioning? More importantly, at what point is the questioning pointless as the question is already solved, or may never be solved? There is a philosophical strangeness to this whole question, and it is one that scientists seem to be aware of. In Brian Greene's book "The Fabric of The Cosmos", he has an introduction which is mentioned to me by more people than anything in the rest of the long and very engaging book. In it Greene discusses finding a copy of the Albert Camus book "The Myth of Sisyphus" as a child. Sisyphus is a book which uses the Greek legend as a backdrop to explain modern existentialism; a man endlessly pushing a bolder up a mountain, never to reach to peek. Why did this story of hopeless persistence make Greene want to be a scientist? The philosophy seems to suggest that the goal to reach a full understanding of the universe will never be achieved. Perhaps this shows Greene's self awareness. By Knowing that life will be only process and repetition; we can embrace the climb rather than the goal.

So what of insanity? I have been accused of being insane for producing plays and films, which always lose money. I have been accused of insanity for arguing about religion with religious people, as no one has ever changed their views from these arguments. The list goes on and on, and those making the accusations certainly have a point. I would say though that in the Einstein sense we are all insane, and that those of us that acknowledge it may actually be on the journey that Brian Greene has taken. It is a pointless persistence of trying and failing that is the reality of living.
By the way, please do buy "The Definition Of Insanity" I am persistently trying to make this film a much deserved success.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Poetic Life of Scientists

More than any interview of a physicist of my generation, last Friday's NPR Science Friday Interview with Cal Tech Physicist Sean Carroll created a mystique for the life of a theoretical scientist. It happened in one moment, which was just marginally different from the common job description of a theoretical scientist. Ira Flotow asked Carroll if he spent his time thinking up these big ideas about time, which is what his new book "From Eternity to Here" ( describes to a general audience. He said that is his job. He goes to the wine bar with a pencil and paper, and thinks of new ways to visualize time and space, and new equations to put the puzzle together. He also said that he was lucky that he worked in such a dynamic field where he could discuss his ideas with colleagues, who we get the impression are his friends. In that moment he managed to elevate the image of a gen x physicist in Pasadena, to lost generation poets in Paris. This is a needed transformation of the imagination. Scientists of my generation and younger have been caught in a historic limbo where social and solitary explorations of the mind have been replaced in large part by social and solitary explorations on-line. We think that science happens only because of computing power, our information gathering resources, and our mass connectivity, while all the while admiring with nostalgia the thought experiments of Einstein, the Eagle Pub of Watson and Crick, or long walks through Copenhagen parks. My favorite book of 2009 was Steven Johnson's, "Invention of Air" ( which not only told of the contribution of Joseph Priestley, but about how coffee bar culture in London led to many of the most important ideas in English science.
Over the last year there have been several books about the need for scientists to be better communicators with the public. I like "Don't Be Such a Scientist" by Randy Olson ( which dealt with this topic, by describing the necessity of scientists to use film, and other multimedia tools to demonstrate ideas to a larger public. What I realize now though is that there is an essential step missing from the picture of going from the lab to the screen. That is the step where we write, draw and eventually talk with each other, not at seminars, but at wine bars. A Greek symposium was a long night of drinking and discussing. A college symposium usually takes place in a classroom during the day and is much shorter, but for some reason I think I would be much more likely to sleep in that daytime class than drunk on Plato's sofa. While poets and philosophers have searched for ways to explain the human condition, scientists are exploring ways to understand nature in its entirety. Friendship, debate and Pinot Noir are welcome companions in this pursuit.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Unfinished Business?

There is a wonderful scene in the film “Six Degrees of Separation”, which as a parent I think about nearly every day. The Kittredge family, who provide the bourgeois Upper East side backdrop of the film, also provide a number of insights into excesses and ambition in contrast to natural instincts. As modern art dealers, they academically understand that the textural and prospective flattening of images represents not merely a shift in aesthetics. It also characterizes a reduction of experience, emotion and philosophy to a two dimension painting. In this particular scene Flan Kittredge, as played by Donald Sutherland, reminisces about his daughter’s second grade class. He remembers how when visiting the classroom, he was stunned, as if entering a gallery at MoMa. All of the paintings of the children struck him as spectacular. He asked the teacher how she managed to get such profound art from every student. Each piece was like a Matisse, a Cezanne, a Kandinsky or a Picasso. The teacher replied that she did nothing. Only that she knew when to take them away. In other words all children are modern masters, but by leaving them to continue work on a painting, that masterpiece may be disguised and colored over.

Children are experimenting with paints and drawings, as we continue to with blogs, with lovers, with restaurants, with financial instruments, and with scientific experimentation. What we often lack however is the equivalent of the teacher who tells us when the experiment is over. For anyone who has played free jazz with a group of musicians for the first time, they will know that it is nearly impossible to bring a piece to its conclusion. This is one of the things that I love about improvisational music, but also one thing that separates those initial experiments from a band that is fully connected. At the heart of free jazz is an assumption that there is nothing a musician can play that is inherently wrong. If a dissonant interval from one instrument is played against a consonant interval from another, it may not be planned, but becomes an idea that requires exploration. During those first meetings of a group, every second of playing is packed with these micro experiments, all of which are of interest to the musicians. Resolving those tonal and rhythmic variations without discussion or pause is an infinite process, which leads to long sessions. For me this is often where jazz starts and ends, as I often don’t have time to rehearse or perform regularly with one particular group. I am often the sit-in pianist who comes into a session with a group who understands each other in such a metaphysically intense way that they instinctually know the movements of the others. It is still a process of experiment for these musicians, but one where a hypothesis has already been stated, and the theory is being tested. I then become a dependant variable in this equation. When it works, the process becomes a calculus, or more metaphorically accurate, a quantum wave function. When listening to the recording the results can be heard, but only as an approximation. Like a subatomic particle whose position and velocity cannot both be measured with complete certainty, neither can any one moment in the cacophony of the sound scape be isolated and understood. It is an evolving process, which as a whole can be experienced. Like the second graders, it takes discipline or a leader to know when to remove your hands from the keyboard.

A science lab can be much the same as this, and like the examples of the children’s art and the free jazz session, it is not completely clear to me that a solution to an experiment ever truly represents a completion. Perhaps it is merely a disciplined end point, chosen aesthetically, artistically or randomly somewhere in the middle for any number of reasons. A corporate research project must have a point at which a conclusion is made, or a product would never be released. We know that the results are rarely perfect, as all products have some degree of uncertainty built into them. A drug is effective in a percentage, hopefully high, of the users, but not 100%. A Ph.d dissertation also must have a completion date, or the student would never get the diploma. American innovation is actually tied to this ability to wrap up an experiment. The first personal computers, IPODS, cell phones and MRI machines weren’t perfect when released, and the scientists who worked on them knew it. But an entrepreneur or manager knew that the product needed to be released.

There is a dilemma for me in this question of creation and completion, which I also think about when watching my daughter paint. It is not whether a painting will look better if it is taken away from her at a certain time. It will certainly be more understandable if it is. We could all be like the second grade teacher in “Six Degrees of Separation”. The big question is rather by taking it away I am stopping a process which for psychological and even artistic reasons should continue to play itself out as long as she wants it too. For my daughter I would want her to continue, as the goal is not for her be a Matisse (at least not yet), but rather to have fun, and express herself. Who I am I to say that she is finished? As we consider ourselves more mature when playing in a band or on nuclear physics experiments, we start to want to be master something rather than just express it. Is that mastering or compromising? Of course it is necessary, and in the cases I mentioned it is important. I wouldn’t want a cure for HIV or cancer to be in a lab somewhere with a scientist saying, “I am not satisfied yet. It only works on 99% of test patients”. I also wouldn’t want every recording to be like most pop albums, where every moment is produced, and planned. This may all seem very trivial and obvious, but it is a question I face every day, as a professor, as a musician, as a scientist, and as a father.