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.