Monday, July 3, 2017

The miracle of C

It is not fashionable to love the C language. Not like, but love. Time moves on and glorifying something from the seventies seems idiotic. But let us use a standard historian's trick: take C away and see what changes.

What would systems programmers use? FORTRAN? Assembly language? Pascal?

We would not have Java with the current syntax or semantics, no dotNet beyond Visual Basic, no browsers, no TCP/IP, no proliferation of language wars, and no C++.

LISP may have evolved to be more widely usable, and Pascal would have likely gained some practicality, at least proper initializers and scoping, and maybe modularity. FORTRAN would have remained dominant. We would still have APL, it was miraculously written in 360 assembler.

Oh yes, JavaScript would be LISP.  Git would be an unrealized dream, as would Lua and LabVIEW and probably MatLab.

Maybe evolution would have found a way, and maybe the down side of C's flexibility and power is fertility. It is an engine of change.

C is attributed to Dennis Ritchie, but its precursor, B, which has an almost identical syntax is pure Ken Thompson. It is this syntax that is so compelling. It is the closest thing to the thought process of a programmer. I would rather write in C than in anything else, and I am confused by those that thought that something like awk of sh were even necessary to make scripting easier. I can do most of it faster in C. And please do not bring up Perl.

C is compact, and it is complete and orthogonal and close to damn perfect. Arrays, pointers, and increments all mesh, probably thanks to Ritchie's semantics.

C is not a glorified assembly language, it is the centre of computer languages, instruction sets have evolved because of it. It distilled all that one needs or wants to do with a CPU.

Objects and user interaction are layers that can easily be added, and C has no trouble with these things, it can stretch.

Many say one can get hurt by its lack of constraint, but I find I get much more hurt by a lack of elegance and clarity in other languages, I sometimes feel like the ugliness of a language can hinder expression, or at least confuse it, and waste programmer's time.

I use C to develop algorithms that I sometimes need to implement in other languages, because it helps to reduce notational ambiguity. It is also universal. In that sense it is a kind of mathematics. Ken Thompson holds a very mathematical view of computing, in a good pragmatic sense, this is the guy who implemented regular expressions, who writes papers that are a joy to read, and who seems to think in a bottom-up clear way. Because of this, I think of him as a founding father of modern computer languages, he took Algol and its kin and made a definitive contribution.

C++ is not an improvement, it is a shameful opportunistic perversion. I use it because it has C in it, and luckily it remains compatible, and its flaws have inspired improvements, like Go. Even C# is a blessing compared to it. Bjarne's complaints and justifications around the preprocessor are noise. The preprocessor in C is a wonderful tool, and used well it can make the language do anything and work anywhere. It is brilliant meta hack. A leap of inventiveness, and rather than dismiss it as a source of bugs, it should be entrenched. C++'s templates are good things, but please do not claim they came to be as replacement for the preprocessor. Without it C++ would not have come into being so quickly. That same preprocessor was used by Bjarne to implement C with classes before it became C++.

Linus is right to dislike C++, it is easy to mess up in it, simply because it hides stuff, and I mean encapsulate is a bad word sometimes. So is overloading if misused, and programmers are a conflicted bunch, they sometimes favour cleverness over communication. I know, I do it and then regret it when I read my code later.

On the other hand, I do the OOP thing, and I think it can help code maintenance and force teams to adhere to design intentions, however it can all be done in C, if you are familiar with its philosophy. One architect I worked with a long time ago would write .h files and pass them around to developer to flesh out into .c or .cpp files. Objects take this a bit further, but not much. The biggest benefit is when doing UI's and other repetitive verbose coding, or when you want to get rid of switch statements all over the code.

And yes, no C, no Unix, no Linux, no Web as we know it.

I am not slamming other languages, just trying to put C where it belongs, at the top (because it is bottom up :-), for its expressiveness, rigour, elegance and efficiency. Did I forget anything?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Callow journalism

I often read the Guardian, the ex-Manchester Guardian, the venerable trust-funded independent paper. It valiantly and explicitly attempts to clearly separate facts from opinion, and has a wide range of points of views, but is definitely to be categorized as left-leaning.

Recently, in the wake of the UK election, it has suffered from a kind of existential angst. Many of its columnists, Oxbridge graduates and smartypants, could not bring themselves to support Corbyn. His strong showing at the polls exposed a disconnect between the "smart left" and the populist left.

The Guardian must (rightly so to speak) show support for Corbyn, while swallowing its pride at the nasty things it said about him before, things like "un-electable", "weak", etc.

Some sectors of the UK obviously still suffer from class considerations. It appalled me to read about the jibes against the "non-toff" Corbyn, both in the Commons, by people like Cameron (the tie etc), Blair, sniping from the manure-infested sidelines, and May. I think the Guardian columnists could have done more to express outrage at this. I also believe that there is a smell of class bias in their attitude and sneering, a small whiff.

I still read the Guardian, but I do not trust it as much as I once did. To be fair, some columnists stood by Corbyn, courageous iconoclasts like Monbiot.

More and more, I invoke Hunter Thomson's warning about journalism, how it is a kind of storytelling, and how it has to stop pretending to be objective. The positivist mind-set of the Anglo-Saxon world needs to be reviewed, and merged with the Continent's existential views, not the salon existentialism that they sneer at, but the stance that sees human affairs as intrinsically engaged with their observers. Journalism is a form of history, and the teller matters there.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Zen, lobotomies and music

Copyright A. Barake, 2015, all rights reserved

Zen can be an overloaded word. Even Robert Pirsig admits in his famous book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that he may not altogether be that accurate about Zen.

One of Zen's objectives is to reduce suffering. To do so via a philosophy or religion means to address suffering's causes, through strictures and practices. I would like to talk about how Zen addresses suffering that comes from within, since suffering from without can become a political topic.

Zen teaches that some thoughts and emotions can cause suffering. The practice of meditation can attenuate this source of suffering by training the mind to see such thoughts and emotions as fleeting, to minimize engagement with them, to see them "fly by", rather than to dwell on them.

This method of disengagement attempts to train the mind to detach from the emotional content of thoughts, in other words, to understand the thought, to perceive and process it, but not to let it cause suffering.

An example would be a reminiscence of an event that could be said to be humiliating, or sad, say a scolding, or a quarrel. The mind may, the morning after say, remember the circumstances and the words that were said, but through Zen meditation, these thoughts would stop short of emotion, they would be like reading an account of the event happening to someone else, or to oneself a long time ago. A distance is placed between the thoughts that may cause suffering and the mind's areas that feel emotions.

It is a willful and gentle lobotomy.

This is not to say that the event or memory does not register, or is not processed. This is not avoidance, this is detachment.

Zen serenity, interpreted in the light of this approach, is a form of emotional control. Another way to keep a stiff upper lip, without repression of emotion, since emotion is not allowed to be invoked.

It is a difficult concept, for me at least, since often my emotions can rise up spontaneously and fast. If meditation can help delay the rise, or at least slow it down through the feedback mechanism of "seeing them fly by", then possibly they can be "pre-processed" and attenuated before they cause suffering or bad actions to occur.

My closing comment on this topic is in relation to music. Music is almost by definition associated with an emotional response. One Zen retreat in my area recommends silence during one's stay, no music, little talk. I think this is because music can be a powerful emotional trigger or catalyst. But what about chanting?

This makes me think that there many kinds of music, since some chants and certain instrumental accompaniments are common in Buddhist temples since they promote a state of meditation, or even trance. Maybe the distinction to make is between song and music, and even within that categorization, between romantic and non-romantic music.

We can continue to categorize, but I think to no useful purpose. Music can invoke memory, and dealing with memory is what Zen meditation practice teaches. So music is OK if you can deal with it, and some music is easier to deal that other kinds. I think Bach is easier to handle during meditation that Ligetti, or the Stones, but that is just me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Spectra, staircases and triggers!

Logic is meant to help us decide how to do things for a purpose, based on input factors and sometimes on their history. Time may or may not enter into it, but usually does in real life. True and false were big matters of debate just after Cantor, during Russell and Whitehead's heyday. The problem of completeness is not entirely solved yet, and despite Godel, we need to take it further.

We can talk about simple things that have to be either one way or another, not in-betweens, such as pregnancy, mousetraps, light switches that work properly, and numbers as represented inside (digital) computers, but not necessarily as represented in mathematicians' minds. Spectra provide us with ways of thinking about more fluid concepts, like heat, light, pleasure, and we can even think of making spectra discrete so as to represent things as steps along a range, which is what digitization does to approximate continuity, and what we can do to deal with things that can take on more than 2 different values, like gender (there are 4 types in certain Ontario public databases).

I wanted to bring a prosaic example to the forefront, having to do with a previous post about service delivery. It has to do with safety, and I will keep the specifics vague to avoid further complications in the real-world. A colleague has had a service company come to assess a replacement for his hot-water heater (very prosaic as I mentioned), and the service guy instead of doing that, checked his chimney flue and red-tagged it as unsafe, although it had been venting his furnace and hot water heater without incident for 17 years. He now has to replace all three items at great cost.  Safety is not to be questioned and the service guy has the authority to do this kind of thing. The law is strict on acceptable carbon monoxide levels in homes (it is not seen as a spectrum but as a trigger, above a certain level is illegal because it is dangerous and can be lethal). The problem as I see it is about the transition. You can set a level to be your true/false trigger. True - you have to do something, false you are safe, but surely there must be a spectrum around that number, a fuzzy logic zone, maybe even based on history.

Engineers have known about this for a long time, likely before steam engines, and have used a concept called hysteresis to deal with it. The classic example is thermostats. The thermostat will turn on a furnace when the temperature drops below a point, but since turning on the furnace may just raise the temperature enough to have the thermostat go back to turning it off, there is a fuzzy range between on and off that uses the direction the temperature is moving to decide when to switch the other way. As the temperature goes up, the thermostat does not turn off until some level above the trigger point is exceeded (by a little bit), and as the temperature drops, the thermostat does not turn the furnace on unless the it is a bit below the threshold. The history and direction of the movement comes into play. Calculus was invented (discovered some say- hah!),
to deal with such history and trends in the domain of functions. It  triggered a crisis in mathematics which was addressed in the 19th century.

So things get complicated around the triggers. Logic has had to deal with this problem, and it was what motivated Zadeh to publish his famous fuzzy logic paper.
In the physical world, circuits that implement logic for computers address the potential noise around zero and one levels by having triggers that implement hysteresis around the trigger point, and eliminate the uncertainty resulting from noise by deciding that once latched they stay latched until the signal level drops enough below the noise to justify a decision change, and vice-versa going the other way.

Now what about quantum phenomena? The cat in the box? The undecidability of state is a bit like this notion of trigger point. We cannot theoretically know which way the trigger will go so we have to observe it to know. It is a limit problem, but one without a resolution in theory, effectively undecidable. Recent papers have suggested that the traditional statistical approaches to dealing with this may not be the best way to look at it. It may be that the size of the system imposes a limit on the trigger point resolution, in fact making it impossible for undecidability to maintain itself once the system exceeds a certain size. After that, it becomes Newtonian, logical, true or false, and the decision point can be made in advance, using classical deterministic methods.

All this makes me wonder if our accepted mathematical model for continuity may not have something to do with this difficulty. We think of a number line as infinitely divisible and more, having points on it that are impossible to measure exactly, Reals, not rationals (not to mention the irrationals). But as a result we get strange phenomena like Cantor's subsets whose members can be put into one-one correspondence with the members of its super-sets, and the fact that 0.9999... is equal to (resolves) to 1. Computers, discretization, and  stair-casing can provide some relief. Any numbers can be represented symbolically, and numerically if we accept a limit on the imprecision, but it can be made precise to the level required for the problem space at hand. This is of course not enough for a mathematician, who will always seek the absolute certainty, but since logic is used to implement the math inside the computer, it may be enough for a logician, and I would argue that if you throw in enough time, then you can get close to what the mathematicians want, although you may never reach it. Limits. So as some have suggested, we may benefit from throwing out Reals. They are limits, and therefore somewhat platonic. Let's just rock'n'roll.

Once last bit:

The law gets around the fuzziness of limit cases by specifying with words  what to do around the decision point. Laws are written to say which way trigger points are decided. For example, in property law, a wall can belong to a lot on which the larger width of it sits, or it may belong jointly to both lots if it crosses the property line between the lots, or whatever. It is a rule, a logical rule, like in a game. Whether the rule is ethical or moral is a judgement based on history, acceptance and tradition, in other words statistics.
Oh my.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Civil servants, public schools (and hypocrisy)

(Paris not Cambridge) Copyright A. Barake 2014

I know that the English use the term "public schools" that way because traditionally they were being contrasted with private home schooling, and that the apparent contradiction with our North American private/public school meaning is an accident of history. But it must be pointed out that despite the forgotten use, the naming is not likely to change, tradition is akin to snobbery, it is the listener that must remember to internally translate the convoluted meaning, the idiom will remain. But on to my rant about other such peculiarly English things.

This theme comes from my current interest in the novels and life of Baron Snow of Leicester, a.k.a. Sir Charles, a.k.a. C.P. Snow, novelist, civil servant, self-promoter, polemicist, and self-appointed sage on science versus the arts.

I must begin by saying that I have not thrown out his novels from my bookshelf despite 25 years of wanting to. In fact I keep re-reading them, especially The Masters and The Affair, both Cambridge-based lessons in closed door-politics. I remember thinking when I first read them that it must very tiring to live in such a society since for every word spoken, there seems to be ten or twenty unsaid. This is not to say that there is no dialog in the books, there is, and it can be entertaining, but there is far more "telling" and judging, from the point of view of the author's alter-ego Lewis Eliot.

Why do I continue to be fascinated and drawn back to these grey amorality plays?

It is not because of the writing. It is stilted and repetitive, and as F.R. Leavis, a fellow member of this Cambridge coterie  pointedly and accurately said in his famous vicious public and published attack on Snow, the chapters seems to be put together by a computer called Charlie.

I think it is because the work walks the line between apologizing for the hypocrisy and self-seeking selfishness of men of affairs and exposing them for the petty small-minded and fallible beings they can be. It is the same reason I like to read Kingsley Amis' semi-autobiographical comic novels. His apparent self-loathing is always couched in some sort of expiation, whether through laughter, ridicule of everyone and everything, clever point of view and great dialog (as opposed to Charlie's).

Snow's life has been studied and is undergoing further study today by Cambridge historians of science and government, because he was an insider of British politics during the middle of the 20th century. He saw things first-hand in his corridors of power, and was proud that he did. He could not help bragging about his presence and his rise from what he perceived as humiliating poverty in the provinces to being a clubbable member of the upper crust. He took the cheek further by "kissing and telling" through his fiction, a form of revenge on his early humiliations, a quiet and subtle revenge, not vicious enough to get him expelled from the back-rooms and clubs, in fact quite the opposite, he continued to gather honours until his death, so much so that some have accused him of being a "gong chaser".

So he had his pie and ate it too. Leavis' attack in the 1960's was apparently unexpected, and surprisingly effective, despite all of Snow's phlegmatic discipline, he continued to allude to it many years after, in fact it was reported that he attributed his lack of a Nobel prize [most unlikely] in literature to it!

The fascinating thing about Snow, (and Amis as well) is that despite the apparent literary self-awareness, running through tens of novels, there is never a doubt that he is completely comfortable with his choices to prevaricate, to bend the rules, to serve himself first, to wallow in the luxury and privilege and to do things first in the back room and then to pretend to do them in public once all has been decided. That is the way the world works. He is right. He was as successful as he wanted to be.

Leavis was not nearly as honoured or respected. One reviewer of his attack called him "a beetle". No one to my knowledge called Snow anything like that.

He had many powerful friends and part of the difficulty of writing a good biography is that these friends continued to be loyal and respectful of his privacy throughout his and their lives. For example, it is not clear if the first failed marriage of Lewis Eliot, his protagonist in the 11 novel series Strangers and Brothers has a counterpart in Snow's life, like the second one does (almost exactly). It is not entirely clear why Snow left a substantial endowment to his secretary in his will and why she held so much of his papers. And we only have his word regarding his proclaimed destiny, choice and inevitability of career as a novelist, despite his early efforts in physical chemistry at Christ's, where he published and had to retract a paper that was thought to be a breakthrough (regarding synthesis of vitamin A). Despite that, he rode his fellowship and connections to a high posting as a civil servant during the war, assigned to choosing and vetting scientific staff for the effort. The word "servant" is part of that strange vocabulary that one must tolerate in English, one that says the opposite of what it means. He only serves his masters and himself, maybe not in that order, and the civil side is just a convenient pretense and facade.

As Proustian documentary, the novels are valuable. As entertainment, they are passable, as psychology they are bedeviling, one cannot make heads or tails of Snow's ethical or moral stance. I am not sure that he could either, maybe it was what drove him to write, other that the boasting and settling of scores. In that sense the work continues to be interesting, but if artistry means controlling and projecting intention accurately, it is only fair that today these novels are mostly seen as dated artifacts of an era, and not valuable contributions to the art of fiction.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Breakfast at Tiffany's and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

It was 1961. Blake Edwards directs Audrey Hepburn who plays an American geisha based on a story by Truman Capote. For Hepburn, it is a defining role, for the other players, like George Peppard, Buddy Ebsen, and Martin Balsam, it would be one of their best roles before moving on to the new upcoming medium of TV.

Blake Edwards who had funny ideas about what is funny, had asked Mickey Rooney to pretend he was Japanese, created a typical surreal party scene, and later regretted and apologized for the former and repeated the latter with Peter Sellars playing an Indian gentleman in brown-face.

Detail from Dancer - copyright 2014 - A. Barake

Despite all the Hollywood crassness and foibles and the watering down of the very moving story, the movie is a classic, and is moving. Some scenes are exactly true to the book, and their power undiluted. The undercurrent of tragedy is always there, the sadness of men's lust for youth, the hurt of youth abused, and the exploitation that derives from these circumstances is played though the central character.

The pattern of a party girl that knows that sex is power yet that feels trapped by it and yearns for something more permanent than the puppet strings that the pull of Eros provides is classic. Marilyn's appeal comes from there. That Hepburn was able to transcend it while still providing the sadness is genius.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, although ostensibly playing with Chandler themes, does provide a nod to the same story (to be fair, so did Chandler in his own misogynistic way in "The Little Sister"). There is the sad back story of childhood abuse, and the party girl in Hollywood plot line, and the sympathetic "friend" who wants her but cannot "have" her.

The pattern of friendship that becomes love is a Hollywood staple, watered down in Doris Day - Rock Hudson movies, and used and abused even today. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hints at it, but the boy and girl do not get together, the boy finally admits to not being good with girls. It plays all the cliches and then twists them into something that says "I know all about this bullshit".

Breakfast at Tiffany's could not do that. It was shot on a budget of $2.5 million and earned 15. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was shot on a budget of $15M and made 16. Draw your own conclusions on what sells.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How Downton Abbey is the M*A*S*H of our times

Robert Altman shoots high. He made indie movies through mainstream distribution mechanisms, his way, with no apparent compromises. Actors loved to work for him. He got the best and he got them to be their best.

His breakthrough M*A*S*H film was made more or less at the same time as other mainstream war films like Catch-22 and Patton, but his had a humanistic twist, not as black as Catch-22, not as jingoistic as Patton. The characters were iconic, and the setting eternal. So much so that the TV series that followed used the same set, ran for a record time and was much loved. Altman did not see much or any money from the series.

It is interesting to compare the movie to the series. It is a good example of how movies could go further, were more adult, in the real sense than TV. The sentimentality was absent, the self-censorship not there.

Fast forward to about ten years ago. Altman, in his mature years, make the perfect manor mystery: Gosford Park. The threads of social change in post Victorian England are captured. The futile snobbery, the emergence of movie making, the dark side of robber barons, and the unfairness of class, are all wrapped in the tropes of the genre, with a wink at the detective, hammed up by Stephen Fry, the upstairs downstairs, the shooting party, the sumptuous settings. The movie works, like all Altman movies, on so many levels that it almost becomes a documentary.

The script credit goes to Julian Fellowes, who afterwards, said that Altman took his script as a starting point, in the same way that Kubrick took Clarke's "2001 a Space Odyssey"  as a starting point (my interpretation, not Fellowes').

Fellowes got a hefty fee with which he bought one of the manors used for the set. He then famously went on to write the TV series Downton Abbey, with many of  the same characters and settings. It is a lavishly produced soap opera. Sentimental, full of short intertwined plot lines, but ultimately apologetic to and for the upper classes. Completely unreal, completely different than Gosford Park, hugely successful and profitable.

Downton Abbey is to Gosford Park what the M*A*S*H  television series was to the original movie. Altman's career was framed by two very similar show trajectories. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

The future of medicine

Tugs - A. Barake - All rights reserved 2014

An item on this morning's public radio twigged my imagination. It was an interview with someone preparing to go on a medical mission to a developing country, with a fully equipped hospital ship.

Usually these kinds of stories annoy me, because there is the whiff of self-righteous do-gooding, and I know I am probably misguided about feeling this way, but pride is a big factor in human behaviour and the recipient's pride is rarely discussed.

Anyways... because I was annoyed, my mind strayed to alternatives to charity, in the same way that accessible ramps on buildings or at curb crossings benefit everyone, not just people with mobility impairment, why not try to overhaul the way medicine is delivered to everyone, using these mission approaches. For example, there are fully equipped ophthalmology planes that can land in remote sites to do eye surgery, there are the above mentioned hospital boats that provide all kinds of services including surgery, and there are travelling emergency teams that go to disaster sites for first response.

Well how about eliminating our (bloated) static hospital infrastructure, that is continuously growing its administrative load following Parkingson's laws, and make all medicine mobile?

The current ubiquitous Web and mobile telephony infrastructure combined with good scheduling software could provide the required efficiencies. The MD's and support staff would travel to the patients and treat them in-situ, with the best mobile equipment money can buy. I think it would be cheaper than maintaining the infrastructure we have now. It would be the return of the house call.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Persistence of Memory

IBM Maritime Device Lunenburg Museum Display

I would like to follow-up on my brief previous posts regarding continuity and consciousness after having read Piero Scaruffi's wonderful survey and synthesis on the nature of consciousness.

To be a "me" is to want to persist in time. This "want" is a big part of what we call consciousness, and Piero makes the very strong argument that you have to follow this want all the way down to elementary particles, otherwise it cannot exist, it cannot be created from the non-wants we have in current physics - both quantum and relativity based. These are objective physics, and we need a "motive" physics. Sounds silly at first glance, but there is already the seed of it in the persistence of matter. Rather than a warm grey entropy soup of energy, we have particles. They are present and atomic, and very very difficult to break-up.

They exist in time.

Time remains enigmatic in that it seems to be different at different scales, and of course depends on the observer. So we have a potential handle for experiments. If we can detect the presence of the "want" to persist, we have begun to detect the "C" property in physics which Scaruffi postulates must exist for consciousness to exist.

As a side observation, when the elementary particles were first split, the massive release of energy was poetically seen as a release of evil, by Oppenheimer no less. This is prescient, since the particles can be said to not "want" to be broken up and led towards the grey entropy cesspool.

And while we are on the playful side, we can agree with the sci-fi writers of the fifties and sixties that hypothesised about conscious machines not wanting to be turned off. Consciousness is the will to persistence. Building on matter's predisposition to exist with complex structures and energy patterns (say like holographic memory standing waves related to Bose-Einstein phenomena), we may make machines that become difficult to turn off. But that is a taboo observation in cognition research. Even the word "consciousness" is avoided by many, since it seems to be outside current physics.

It is telling that today, engineers struggle with the problem of making machines that are reliable, that do not break-down, when in our corner of nature, the opposite seems to be true, it is hard to stop things from living on, from being persistent and often fertile. Bacteria for example are everywhere.

Once we start using such building blocks to make machines, we may be in trouble. Even DNA and RNA like to persist way beyond the ability of transistors, who just need the excuse of a bit too much voltage or current to break. Maybe it is just a matter of finding the right temperature and chemistry as Piero alludes to in one of his chapter endings.

Our scientific tools and language (mathematics and logic) are model-biased. They are, as George Lakoff points out, metaphors for reality, firmly based in the way our brain processes sensory data. These metaphors are integrations, categorizations and ultimately simplifications. Models can be manipulated symbolically. That is the point of making one. This seems to be at odds with how nature works, despite claims that mathematics is "unreasonably effective" at explaining the world. Mathematics is unreasonably effective at explaining how we perceive the world because it is an extension of perception, it is biased towards our perceptual machinery.

That bias may be part of the problem with building cognitive and ultimately living mechanisms. Biology deals with statistical data, fuzzy numbers and processes, parallel possibility searches. Math can handle this, but not without a lot of horsepower to process the possibilities. Statistics is a good model for the macro view of such processes, and it continues to be used effectively in quantum physics. We need to invent a better conceptual language to deal with the processes of cognition. Logic is not enough.

Finally, since this blog is a ledger for insights, let me follow-up one last one from Piero, from his Web writings: that machines are conditioning us to be like them through use. Of course this is a conceit, but a functionally accurate one. We are the consciousness of the internet, and we adapt to its use, learn not to make mistakes, in the dumb way computer software wants us to be. So we are moving towards the logical model of reality that we created, we are moving closer to a culture of logic and mathematics, and it can be argued that this is amove away from higher life. Computer addiction is a manifestation of this. We get small rewards by doing things "right", and we get back a sensory reward, repeat and rinse.

Sam Sheppard famously said that he stays away from computers, and I have heard other creative types express that feeling, similarly to those who in the past stayed away from TV. It is a valid position, because they are time sinks, but they are also connectors to others, and when they are used for communication and creativity, they do amplify these consciousness mechanisms. The danger is the other fun stuff, the surfing modes.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

HAL, Zombies, Territorial Instinct, and Idiot Philosophers

It hit me like a flash today that 2001 A Space Odyssey is all about the "me" inside us.

Kubrick augmented Clarke's fairly banal story about extra-terrestrial visitation into a philosophical tour-de-force when he modified HAL's role in the story.

He made HAL truly and fundamentally conscious, with all the attendant complications of having to deal with another "me" on the ship.

There exists a school of thought which we could call the ostrich psychologists, who refuse to study or to consider consciousness since they see it as "subjective".

Their idiot brethren cognitive philosophers have proposed a thought experiment to demonstrate this point of view, where a zombie with no "me" interacts with a normal human. The argument goes like this:

  • If such a zombie could behave in every way like a person, interact in day-to-day activities "normally", yet not be self-aware, who is to tell that the "me" is not there? 
  • So ergo, consciousness is a fabrication and is useless.

There is a big flaw in that argument (despite my brutal simplification, that is the crux of it, I promise):

How do we know that the zombie could behave like a human? It may not be possible.

Consciousness is a survival trait, since it makes one evade pain, evade death, it comes with a territorial urge, a the need for a place in the world, a self is an embodiment of the sensory matrix.

So consciousness is, must be, an evolutionary an advantage, it has to make you run or fight better.

Kubrick saw this clearly and expressed it dramatically. HAL defends its turf because it is conscious. The "me" must prevail over those who want to snuff it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Where are you now Joe?

(Source: cheyennesophia)

I work with engineers. I graduated as one, am part-engineer, but other stuff interfered, but that is not to say that I don't understand them/us; I do, almost too much. This is also why I want to write a bit about it.

They are, as a generalization, as an archetype, extremely annoying. So much so that I usually leave the room when they start expounding on anything other than the technical job at hand. For example, I remember a rant about how genetically engineered foods are safe, how can they not be? The problem was he was limiting the argument to ingestion, not to the impact on the ecology. Dead monarch butterflies don't figure in the equation, too complex a variable space.

Another problem is that they do not rest until they think that they have a proposal, a solution. The macho thing is to know. An answer to all problems, and an opinion on everything, while constraining the solution space to things they can control. Arts don't usually figure in it, neither does philosophy, but sometimes, oddly, religion does, like a form of insurance.

But, what if they were allowed to run the world? What if most politicians were trained as engineers? What if they were allowed to put their pragmatic bent on science into practice in managing the world? What if their proclivity for getting things done in reasonable time and with limited resources was given free reign?

Well, here are some speculations:

Neo-conservatism would die. We would go back to the original definition of conservative. There would be more equilibrium, more feedback mechanisms in the economy, and more conformity, more standards, more control. You may remember the CBC radio show called "Double Exposure", where in a famous episode they hypothesised about a Joe Clark-led Canada, and it was presented as a utopia where Via Rail ran on time, the budget was balanced, and Canada was the way we wanted to imagine it. I sometimes like to think that Joe heard that episode and that it made him cling to power until he was deposed by the current lying cabal. Well I think an engineer-led country would be a bit like that bittersweet satire. By the way, I think Joe hung on so long because he was drawing a huge salary for the duration too.

There is a danger, there always is in human affairs. Control and conservatism leads to depression. Countries that are well run, rich and efficient, like say Switzerland, where postal service, tax collection, public transit and policy making are well integrated, rational and effective suffer from high rates of substance abuse and suicide. It must be wearing to have to buy only one sort of paint when you need to repaint you apartment before moving out, where garbage bags are standardized, and toilets cannot be flushed on Sunday evenings for fear of disturbing neighbours.

Engineers are happy to use equations as they see fit, to take a short cut, to use rationals for Reals, to call a derivative a division, to use Newton's method to solve non-linear equations, to iterate and to successively approximate until the answer fits. All good. Necessary even.

They cannot help themselves from driving the cost of technology down with their work. They race to put themselves out of business by making chips that can print themselves, that don't need fancy designers to make them work, they help get rid of pesky analog circuit calculations and replace them with digital signal processing approaches that sample just fast enough by Nyquist's criteria, to allow general purpose chips to do everything.

They invented plumbing that allows us to live on top of each other (but not to flush quietly), they made a communication system that never breaks down that allows you to connect to anyone anytime with or without wires, and now they are allowing conversations with no-one at the other end, or maybe everyone, or something.

Without these things we could not continue to reproduce, to fill the planet up with ourselves and our information. They are essential, but they are not in charge, the politicians are in charge, the ones that are the byproduct of money, the ones that exist to prevent the equal and natural distribution of wealth to occur. Politicians, of whatever creed, are not detail folk, not systems folk, they will err, or worse, be led, and Arthurs need Merlins, but always rule over them.

There is no solution to propose, around this state of affairs, other than the usual one, let things evolve and hope that they do not devolve. As long as we have innovation and pragmatism, there is a way. No irony intended. Really.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Open letter to Lakoff about his book on math

Dear Prof. Lakoff

A short note to say how much I am enjoying "Where Mathematics Comes From". It is providing closure for me.

In the 1980's, I fell in love with math during a college course based on the very foundations-conscious Calculus text by Spivak and although I enjoyed the rigor and beauty, I could not help but feel a bit uneasy at the hoops one had to jump through for the proofs to work, all this in the name of eliminating intuition.

I eventually ended up on the "applied" side, to the regret of my wonderful teachers, because I felt much more at ease with the way things seemed to work out intuitively. Successive approximations to non-linear functions using the university mainframe seem to do the trick of finding solutions to things I was curious about. Infinitesimal approaches, simplex algorithms and Fourier series implemented in WATFOR to solve hard differential equations numerically were simple but magical approaches to understanding. I was gratefully standing on Turing and Church's shoulders.

Anyhow, over the years I kept looking for insights as to why the pure math left me a bit uneasy since I still admired the beauty of it, (like pining for a high-school sweetheart) in all kinds of places including David Foster Wallace's overly baroque book on the math of infinities (yikes).

Your book reconciled the comfort of the applied and the beauty of the formal for me. There is a cognitive continuum after all, between the purists and us engineering/computing folk.

It connected the dots, clarifying the things that seemed like bridges by grounding them. By focusing on the metaphors for infinity it helped in categorizing things that were both computing and theory, but that could only exist because of computing: compiler theory, the Aho-Ullman stuff derived from Chomsky. I can now see why there was all this cognitive dissonance when I was learning Analysis.

For example, the space-as-points versus space-containing-points argument you and Nunez make is beautiful and could be applied to the philosophy of physics as well. The notion of particle comes to mind. I think Feynman the intuitionist in physics is a counterpart to Poincare in the world of math. His explanations of energy quanta and fields address the analogous notions of space and points in the world of physics, where it seems some still cling to the Platonic reality of math. The intuitionists, like Poincare, were very courageous and insightful as well as demonstrably able to make new discoveries as they sidestepped the Gottingen school's rejection of intuitive geometry and Cantor's objectification of infinities. Set theory is nice but infinity is just NaN.

I had read Kline's history of math some years ago and although I agreed with his view that a rift in math was created at the time when intuition was relegated to a sideline, there seemed to be something missing, much more to say. Your work with Nunez closed that loop for me.

I am now curious and encouraged to find out more about any research to make rationals (the real Reals :-)) the basis for discretization, as well as links between foundations work and Chomsky's formal grammars. I agree as the book infers that terminology in math is key to disambiguation - but technical terms like Real and continuous are too deeply entrenched of course. Maybe intro calculus courses should begin with a review of those specialized semantics. Like lawyers learning contract terms...

I am also curious about reactions to your work from the math community (rather than by the pedagogical folks) since I think the arguments are revolutionary and deeply original. I looked cursorily on the Web but found little of substance in reaction or support of the ideas in the book. Are mathematicians looking into closing the gaps you identify? Did you get much substantive opposition to your views? Finally, kudos for the other wonderful work on political discourse. Sorely needed. I wish I could be young enough again to enroll as a student of your faculty, but I will continue to follow your research with great interest nonetheless.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Last Year at Marienbad and Kubrick lovers

Resnais/Robbe-Grillet's movie could have never been made by Kubrick, by any American. It is a gulf that cannot be bridged. It is a great film that defines the distance between two cultures. A defining artefact.

But let's look at the commonalities first. Formalism, cinematography, music, all these are components of the medium, mastered by both sides. Influences are acknowledged, Marienbad left its mark that way.

The difference is in the extreme surrealism, if that is at all a possible term. Resnais does not hesitate to go all the way, and manages to get it made as a mainstream film. Cultural considerations could never trump commercial ones that way in Hollywood. Never.

It was panned by American critics. It was a challenge to their perceived cultural hegemony. I am not sure what the current critical status is, other than it being something which has taken place, that exists and that cannot be taken back. This is the advantage of reproducible media over museum pieces, stone temples, things that can be annihilated in war. It is also the curse of the commercial interests who want to charge toll, but who at the the same time want mass consumption.

There are others like it, Tarkovsky's Nostalghia comes to mind, but very few that speak universals without compromise or banality.

Marienbad tiptoes and steps on formalism, uniqueness, understanding, ambiguity, misunderstanding, romance, and pretentiousness, and succeeds in being unique, beautiful, and influential.

Commoditization of Relationships

All rights reserved A. Barake 2013

Finding a partner for love, for life is part of the journey for most, and it is a bit of a paradox that we need to think of that person as special for it to gel. The search for the click of compatibility is at odds with what biology has evolved for us. Put random male and female animals together and they will usually mate. Of course there are exceptions, and it may well be that we as a species are evolving away from this facility so as to ensure our survival in this increasingly competitive environment.

What made me think of this topic, the selection of mates, is the age-old cultural stigma around pornography, around commoditization of desire. I think that one reason this feeling exists is that it tends to devalue the specialness felt around love, around desire. It compartmentalizes it and ultimately makes it a consumable. Nothing new here. Prostitution, pornography and sexual entertainment, to coin a phrase, have always been part of commerce. I think it is useful to think of them clearly, as subsidiaries of humanism, as ways to make us conform, to be farm animals in the corporate culture. The test is that someone profits from them. They also represent an area of potential emotional confusion, because they link very strong feelings and instincts with something that is too tightly framed and packaged as a consumer item. It is not a good idea to become attached to consumables, and it is not a good idea to separate your emotions in such a way as to be able to cater to those needs in exchange for currency. The malaise I feel is akin to the distinction made between a soldier and a murderer. The cultural definition is clear, but not completely rational, it is based on emotional separation. (An aside: the current CBC attention to post-traumatic stress disorder is the tip of a very big iceberg, one that they will never acknowledge, since they are an instrument of the state, a placebo for culture, a fucking depressing lie, but all we have left in the mainstream.)

Marcuse, in An Essay on Liberation makes a case for the way we internalize comfort and consumerism, becoming willing corporate subjects. Subjects are manipulated, held. Reading between the lines, one can see that conformity is part of the enabling mechanism, and commoditization of our humanity is the precipice to stay away from. Individual feeling, specialness, and its protection from influence, including advertising are survival mechanisms too. The difference between a surviving consumer culture and one that thrives on equality is sustainability. At some point, if we follow the former to its logical conclusion, we will have to eat dollars and copulate with machines.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Continuity of Consciouness

Were the Greeks onto something when they coined the roots of the word "consciousness" and "continuity"? To be conscious is to remember the last moment of perception and to link it to the next, to have your brain relate perceptions into some coherent short term stream, so that you can feel and act on it.

Consciousness is continuity of perception. As you fall asleep, that continuity gets fragmented and you tend to forget the next moment, you lose consciousness and continuity.

Consciousness depends on the existence of the short-term cache used to process incoming data from the senses. It has to be fast, and it has to integrate the information for the deeper layers, the one that drive action and long term memory. It has to draw upon memory as well. Short term memory is limited in size because it is big on processing power. Lots of neurons required.

Current research on cognition suggests that we have a bunch of neural bundles in the brain that do this work all in parallel, that these compete for bandwidth, and the resultant dynamic network signals are what we can call consciousness. The signals that have control of the bus at the time, and that pulse it to make us act and remember are the Self.

This model does not address the big question of the Me. What makes a writer want to take this flow of perceptions, call them ideas, record them on secondary external memory and publish them so as to possibly communicate and affect the behaviour of others. The Will to Power?

What links us to the world as Beings. This is what the better religions are struggling with, and Zen Buddhism comes close to understanding it when it concludes that the universe is Me, and that the relationships between beings is the Universe. Still, a loop. Maybe language is the issue. We have an object-oriented language, and that is a flawed model, as many programmers and programs are discovering. The world cannot be entirely described as a hierarchy of "objects" What is an object anyhow, except an integration by the senses, a model. Another loop.

Some drugs like alcohol, anaesthetics, and sleep hormones allow these neural bundles to slow down, to rest and possibly to re-organize, do to maintenance. Caffeine and other stimulants speed up the bus somehow.

We feel and act differently under these influences because our front end processing changes, the continuity of short term memory and of sensual processing changes, thus affecting our sense of self and our relation to our longer term memory and patterns of integrated behaviour.

Musicians and visual artists discover new patterns under the influence. Whether they create "better" work or play better is difficult to say, but I think that the intent is to explore different avenues, which can lead to better work when edited. Write drunk and edit sober said the late Kingsley Amis.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Service Overload

This is a tale of two three encounters. Before the anecdotes, which necessarily cannot be data, I have to do this generalized aside on the word "service" and its possible interpretations. Just because.
Let's begin strongly:

  • To service someone is to perform sex for their benefit. They can be the mark, or you can be the trick, either or both ways, it is lopsided.
  • The "service industry" is a euphemism for pseudo-indentured jobs, the ones left over after the higher-paying ones have left the country. Job numbers in the west depend on these leftovers to make politicians look like they are not selling us all out.
  • A service, in the technical sense, is something that waits to be connected to clients,  to provide data or a function. Examples are Web servers and gas service stations. They are the public houses of day-to-day interactions, the places you go to when you don't have it at home. Mostly shared services.
  • In Switzerland, specifically in the French-speaking regions, the local idiom for responding to a thank you is by saying "service", with a rising last syllable. This is more-or-less semantically equivalent to "you are welcome", minus the part about being welcome.
  • Finally (for this aside), service, serving, servile, servant are all indicative of power relations, and the word will always bring to mind a brilliant interview Maud Barlow gave during the selling of Free Trade to Canadians, where she correctly predicted point number two above as being the consequence of the Peter Lockheed, Brian Mulroney et al road show con job.

So here are the two anecdotes that led to this rant:

1. Earlier this year, I felt ill enough to want to see a doctor. My regular family doctor had given up serving patients, and I had transferred my files to someone else in town that I knew about. I did not know about his office staff though. Their notion of service seemed to be to help the doctor NOT see me.

My first call for an appointment was answered with voice mail that invited me to leave a message, and hung up just after the beep. After calling again the next day and somehow managing to get through, the clerk/office manager told me that they were in the process of moving and that the IT system was not up, and "could I call in a week to make an appointment?". I asked about pencil and paper methods, and she said it could not be done. My illness was not getting worse, so I did as she said.

That second call led to her telling me that she could not help me yet since my files had not been entered in the system, and that the backlog was substantial. Three weeks it would take. I was feeling better that week, so I forgot about it.

When things flared up health wise six weeks later, I called again. That call led her to tell me that she could only make the appointment for the next week, but could not record it, I had to call back. I asked why. She said that those were doctor's orders, he was an emergency physician, and saw patients on odd or even weeks, but I was clearly calling during a wrong one. What about booking, I asked? She said no, I had to call the week I was going to see him. She would not make an appointment. I said that that was outrageous, she said that she could not help me further. I hung up after telling her how I felt, politely I thought, but angry at her level of service. I decided to switch service provide yet again. My physical health is still the same. I suspect that under the capitation compensation policy of the system, the doctor got paid a head fee for me during these few months for these non-services.

2. I had to switch (this is a recurring theme) phone and Internet service provider this year, and called Bell Canada to arrange it. They have two separate help-desks (another Orwellian euphemism) to do this, and two different cancellation policies. The Internet one requires a month lead-time, else they bill you an extra month whether you need the connection or not. The phone can be switched by the receiving phone company, which was not to be Bell, since they kept raising their rates with no discernible improvement in service, and I was happy to have the opportunity to switch.

So I went through the motions, the calls, the online attempts. The voice line was moved apparently automatically, and on the data side, I returned the leased modem/router after receiving the documentation on how to do that. Obviously they had begun the work flow.

But... the bills for the voice and data services were still coming after disconnection. So I called again, got put on hold, was asked why I am moving providers, got offered discounts, and was repeatedly assured that the issue would be corrected. The bills continue to arrive for the next three months, each time followed by my attempts to stop them by calling the service desk(s). The nice underpaid and overworked agents (who comes up with these metaphors? Agents of what?)  seem helpless, faced as they are with the tangled automation jungle of their CRM (customer relationship management) and billing system(s) and processes. They apologize to my rising and by now apparent degree of frustration, and assure me that this will cease soon. Something in the CRM system also causes Bell to make unsolicited calls to my new number to try to lure me back to them, to which I reply politely asking whether they will refund the years of what I felt were inflated bills for the same service. You can check-out, but you can never leave.

The game is still going on. I received another accumulated bill for services not provided just today, which I followed with a conversation and letter to Bell, or should I say BCE, the holding company for a plethora of likely subcontracted services. This is a company that was at the pinnacle of good and centralized service and engineering throughout the last century, that designed and provided solid and reliable connections with a target mean time between failures of 49 years (the phone system), and that has degenerated into this very strange conglomerate of contracted services and cost savings that put the burden of quality in the hands of those that pay for these services. A very strange layered power relationship, where the intent seems to be to channel F. Kafka.

Clearly, there is a shift going on in these two examples, a shift in who is being serviced. This cannot be entirely intentional, I would not credit the providers with that much maliciousness. It is most likely an evolutionary process, that derives from countless strategy sessions on how to become more streamlined and cost-effective. It exposes the flaw in the notion of service as a business objective, one that can be said to lead to effectively dishonest or at least confused behaviour.

One last little bit:

Reading this back, I suspect that some may feel that I am one of those curmudgeons that thrive on calling and complaining, as a hobby. After all, it is a fairly common human pattern of behaviour. It is also a great inversion, a bit like victim blame, another common human perception pattern. I cannot do anything about this reflection other than coat this account with humour to try to partially dispel this. I do not enjoy playing this complaining game, whether I win or lose. I have sympathy and respect for most of the people (but not the demonic clerk at the doctor's office) who work for these service providers, and who have to patiently deal with these inevitably demented processes, and I don't want to make their lives even more difficult.

When the Ontario Government, three years ago, asked their civil servant staff to comment on their new set of logos and attempts at "re branding", which I suspect was a consultant's trendy suggestion to do something that looked good but cost little, some wrote back that branding was a stupid idea for a service provider that could not, by definition have any competition. After all you have only one provider for driver licenses, permits, health cards, etc, so what does a brand give you except disruption of familiarity and potential confusion? Improve service some suggested.

Well, they still went ahead with re branding, making their stylized symmetrical logos more dashing and asymmetrical, making the staid trillium look hand drawn (we now call it three men in a hot tub), but the internal mantra became "better service", and to be fair, they did streamline their red tape.

Enough said.

PS: maybe not. I seem to have disturbed the service provider gods. Just after writing this post I had another servicing nightmare:

Our natural gas furnace is covered under a service plan with Direct Energy, a large, non-local sales and service company for heating, cooling and water tanks, among other things.

They kept calling me throughout the year to set up my "free furnace maintenance appointment". Since we work during business hours, I kept postponing it, and when I finally agreed on a date in October, they called that week to tell me they were too busy and had to reschedule it on December 28th. Fine, I would be home for the Christmas break.

So they send over a nice young technician that tells me that the our carbon monoxide levels are very high, and that we need a new part to fix the problem, which he orders. After the part arrives, another fellow comes by a couple of days later and tells me that that was not the right part and the furnace requires a new heat exchanger, which is a big item, and I believe him, because he had opened things up and showed me the rusted cavity. He was not young, a bit ornery, but seemed competent. So he orders that part and takes the other one away, and tells me not to operate the furnace.

This happens during a period of record-breaking cold temperatures, and Direct Energy, in response to my frantic calls about servicing tells me that no technicians will be available for over a week. I complain of course, call them over and over, get put on hold, get transferred to a rescheduling department that asks me for contact information again, and still no luck. Their so-called 24 hour service guarantee seems limited to answering calls within 24 hours, phone calls.

Eventually a couple of cheery fellows arrive, as the weather warms up, and they take the furnace apart, install the parts, and then try to turn it on. It stalls. They frantically replace more parts, the control board, etc. It still fails. There are blinking status lights that they don't seem to understand. So they tell me more parts have to be ordered, a blower motor. It turns out that the blower motor had been replaced less than a year ago. So I said not to do it, to fix it, goddammit.

They could not, they had spent the day, and were exhausted. I also think that they were not all that experienced. Nothing we can do sir.

So, desperate to have heat, I looked at their handiwork. Found some loose and missing screws on the blower, it was vibrating, and there were bad contacts on connectors for wires to the control boards, and some badly set configuration switches, since they had replaced my perfectly fine, configured board. Also, I noticed that the electrostatic air filter that was not working, something they missed. It took about an hour, but the furnace was back in operation. No blinking, no  leaks, heat.

Direct Energy continues to call me, to find out when I want the blower motor part delivered, when I want a maintenance call, and they always check my address and phone number and one out of two times get it wrong. I suspect a rogue IT system, and some underpaid agents.

I think I will deal with local furnace guys from now on. At least I know where they live, and they always send the same guy, a bit grumpy, but who can blame him, crawling around in basements every day.

I am exhausted and a little pissed off. All I wanted was a quiet and warm Christmas.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Two Movies about Sex and Love

Both are Canadian made, both are based on autobiographical novels, both are small, relatively unknown, and both treat sex and obsession realistically, without the usual prudish conventions. The theme of lost childhood also runs through both, with scenes in playgrounds and scenes from childhood. The differ in the the gender perspective, which makes the  juxtaposition interesting to me.

The more recent is Lie with Me (2005), and the other is The Favorite Game (2003).

Lie with Me, based on the novel by Tamara Berger, deals with the obsession of a young woman with a stranger, and his reciprocation, and it follows their affair as it evolves. It explores sexual obsession and love, love as questioned and ultimately defined by words and acts, love as visceral need. The point of view is subjective but switches between the lovers. The inevitable weakness is that the viewer cannot understand why their mutual attraction is stronger than attraction to the other players, say the other girlfriend, or the other men she meets. One must accept the coup-de-foudre as it is presented, in documentary fashion. There are few words, the movie is all subtext, and the subtext can be interpreted broadly. It is about the space between lovers, and succeeds in reflecting the mystery of falling in love, the insecurity and excitement, and the release.

The Favorite Game, based on Leonard Cohen's first novel deals with Leo's (as he is called in the movie but not in the book) search for love, and tries to explore the basis for his behaviour through flashbacks. Leo is afraid of commitment but is obsessed with beauty and with sex. The movie follows his affairs from his point of view, making the viewer identify with him maybe too strongly, and the weakness here is that despite his callow and selfish behaviour, he remains a sympathetic and charming fellow. It is a male perspective. The women are well cast, developed as characters, as much as the novel allows, but the movement of the movie leads to an implicit acceptance of Leo's inability to give enough of himself. It is a sort of visual justification of his remoteness and egotism.

Juxtaposing the two points of views above is interesting, in that in Lie with Me, there is a search for more, for extreme attachment, for physical and emotional welding, whereas in the The Favorite Game, there is is search for detachment despite the need for physical intimacy. It is not about sexual possession, only about sexual conquest.

As movies, they suffer from the fact that the viewer is necessarily outside, a manipulated, carried-about observer, and cannot be made to feel what the characters feel. We must watch what goes on in documentary fashion and try to catch a reflection of the subtle emotions at play. The acting, writing and direction are good, but the medium and form are restrictive. Love and sex in movies are extremely difficult to convey accurately. The most sucessful and best example I can think of is Paris Texas, by Wim Wenders. There are no sex scenes, there is only talk and glances, and the point of view is omniscient. Wenders succeeds through word images, landscape, haunting guitar, and almost cliche settings. Strange and beautiful. Eric Rohmer's movies succeed in the same way.

Oh, one last thing, Lie with Me is set in Toronto, in the Annex, and The Favorite Game mostly in Montreal. No significance.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fake Control Through Cheap Realities

Just reread Susan Sontag's famous book on photography. One of the later essays starts with what could be a comment on the Internet: images are necessary to alleviate the anxieties of modern culture, things like class and money stress, consumerism, emptiness and lack of privacy. Images provide a surrogate sense of power, of ownership and control over reality as well as enough variety to keep desire down, or at least to channel it.

Hey, this is why the Internet is not censored in our culture. It is a pacifier.

We have more than just the photos Sontag was writing about, more of the pseudo-real to keep us occupied and calm. Hell, interactive stuff too, live feeds, tweets that are like ESP antennae hums, and eyes everywhere taking and framing pictures that are pasted to a map. It reduces the biological need for face to face, for real politics, for making art and for ultimately making trouble...except when it is used an means of communications and of organizing. So we need to watch out for that, to suck it up and store it so that we can incriminate those who use it that way.

Keep on doing selfies.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Heinz Ketchup, Catsup, Game's Up

Leamington Ontario is a pretty place. I remember driving through on the way to Windsor and Detroit and stopping at Point Pelee to see the bird sanctuary, and hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of where the monarch butterflies gather. As we drove through we also saw the rows and rows of open bed trucks, filled with red red tomatoes, delivering to the Heinz factory.

We stopped, tasted some local tomatoes, and moved on. A taste and some smells and sunlight leave strong memories. This was in 1989, almost a generation ago.

And now, through what I will call a whim of greed, Warren Buffet's company decide to buy and close down the ketchup plant here. Some have said that it was Heinz's fault for not being competitive, whatever that means, but I persist in thinking that Berkshire-Hathaway, that faux front of a noble name was not obligated to cause the loss of 800 jobs or so. What is the imperative other that cancerous greed? Must a company be compelled to buy and close down inefficiencies? For some market ideologues, the answer is yes. This is why charity money from the so-called sage is privately managed, by another billionaire's foundation. They believe that even their charity must be controlled "efficiently". They hold the answer to ethics and morality of course, not the average democratic masses. That other billionaire is the guy responsible for the billions of hours of lost efficiencies and wasted mouse clicks due to a retarded and regressive computing platform, a platform that repeats the mistakes made in the 1970's by another (blue) computing behemoth. Mistakes of engineering, not mistakes of finance. The financial efficiency is blindingly good. Money keeps accumulating, and goes to foundations, to managed charities, guided by the very visible hand of plutocrats, depriving the average democratic lot of jobs and ketchup.

And by the way, the golden arch company that Berkshire-Hathaway holds a good part of, and that Mr. Buffet claims he has breakfast at every morning had recently changed ketchup suppliers, changed away from Heinz. Not a coincidence. The class war has been lost, lost to very boring people, who lack the imagination to even have interesting breakfasts. A race to the bottom, to the absolute abstraction of our culture, a very big number in the bank account, but little else. It is about the numbers, the game, not about what it means. It is not strictly immoral, but it is destructive, and it certainly is not efficient in terms of survival of the culture.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Meta-fiction, script writing, travel writing and the novel

I have been reading Redmond O'Hanlon, Michael Palin, and Bill Bryson recently, in parallel for no particular reason. So for the same reason, I will comment about them together.

After having enjoyed Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", which I think is his masterpiece, I picked up his book of columns on returning to live in North America, New Hampshire specifically. Like his other travel chronicles, it is an amusing collection of his peculiar collisions with everyday reality, filtered and edited extremely cunningly, but apparently effortlessly. He is an artist of the everyday, a likable author, although I have become suspicious about amiable literary personae since I read Witold Rybczynski's gentle books on history and architecture. You see, he taught classes at McGill while I was there, and he certainly was not amiable. Maybe he did not like teaching.. who knows, but I was very surprised as how radically his literary voice differed from his aural one.

So Bryson is well edited, slick, fun. Low on big content, even less than Witold, but big on small stuff, except in his science book, which I have acknowledged above and cannot recommend enough.

Let us move on, towards the synthesis that I am trying to circle, using the next guy in the list. Palin. Specifically his novels, and more specifically his latest, "The Truth". I think it is a ripping yarn, perfectly suited for a TV short series, but I also think that it is a failure as a novel. It tries hard, with many details taken from life, that may resonate with some readers, that surely resonate with the author, clear descriptions, characterizations and lots of touching interactions with minor characters, yet the voice of a novel is missing. The writing is friendly but fluffy, verbose almost, requiring editing. I wanted to edit it while I was reading it. Michael, I offer my services officially if you wish. It just needs tightening up to become a good novel. It needs excising of noise as well as the addition of texture for coherence, it needs a drive, a plot that gels, not just a good story. And by the way, I think Palin is truly amiable, not someone with a dual persona. What you read is what you get. A huge success and role model due to innate talent and goodness, not editing. Just sayin'.

Then there is O'Hanlon, who had been sitting on my shelf unread for years, I mean the Borneo book that made his name. What a hoot. Apparently the man was coming out of years of slogging at his thesis, a bit down, when he decided to hit the jungle with a friend who happens to be a great poet, but who comes off as a calm, wry and stabilizing partner but ultimately a side-kick in the book, not the way he sees himself I would think.

O'Hanlon can write. The stuff is direct, intelligent, and gets into your head like a conversation over drinks late at night. It was written by Redmond for Redmond, but it makes one want to be Redmond, or at least to be around him. Of course it is a sort of advertisement for himself, but it is brilliantly self-deprecating, and smart as well as genuine, a masterpiece. I will read his other stuff to see if my opinions about his truth can be sustained.

I have written about Paul Theroux and Coetzee here before, particularly about how I think they shape their voice, how they manage to write freshly when so much of the plain style has already been done before them, on the same subjects. Their trick is individualism, filtering common experience and internalizing the world in a deeply reflective way. The other guys I mention in this essay go there too now and then, O'Hanlon being my favorite, but Palin being the most honest about it I think. Bryson is a journalist, so it is difficult to tell if and
when he will turn on you, or how deep the stuff goes with him. It may be just copy.

Where does fiction and meta-fiction intersect with the travel story? Palin's book is an attempt, but as I said, I think it fails. O'Hanlon is pure travel, no fiction. Bryson is column journalism, short narrative, with some
exagerration for fun. Theroux does walk across the border into the country of the novel, he is aware of how lying well is an art. Coetzee too, but by avoiding the lie, by mixing characters with self, by doing the meta fiction thing very well.

I wish some of the lesser meta-fiction types writing today (who would use any mention of their name as advertising) would put in the effort to reach the borders of that territory rather than re-treading the plain biographical noise with outrageous urban experience that is so common. Bukowski, Cohen, Kerouac all did it very well, but they were also poets, and that is their legacy, their context. Meta navel gazing only works if you prove yourself through poetry too. Coetzee does it with prose alone.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


The usual trope about the necessary relationship between the individual's pursuit of art and its potential for universal appeal makes it a spectrum, or a see-saw, where some classic works seem to transcend the creator to the point of redefining them, think of Kafka for example, and others are callow self-centered curiosities,  vicarious navel-gazing porn, something we can escape into for a while, think of Leonard Cohen, or of Madonna.

Being a spectrum that ranges from the personal to the universal, and the laws of statistics being what they are (more on that later), most artists balance with one foot on each side of the fulcrum to make a go at it.

Since I am using a categorization argument, I must also talk of those who create entire new universals, new micro-cultures, new ways of seeing, by extending the culture. Movements are easier in groups, thus marketing attempts that wow the weak-minded critics, but once in a while, a huge, huge ego leave the packs behind, through mono-maniacal focus and dedication. This is a special  flavour of self-centredness. This is
what we label as genius.

The cost is to the normal. You cannot be outside the norm and live normally. Looking at examples, like Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hemingway, we see the huge personal toll on their close ones. Relationships have to come second to the work.

Since we learn by aping others, there will always be minor artists who embrace the self-centredness first and then hope for the universality.

What easier subject to study than the one we are in love with most. The self-portrait is a rite of passage, like the nude. Without a real muse, I can be my own. Even a muse can act as an amplifier to my ego.

There are so many writers, musicians, visual artists, who can do no better than tell us stories about themselves. The ones we hear above the din are the ones who tell us with style, those that rise above the averaging noise, that can be seen through the grass, but the intensity, quirkiness, and interest is no substitute for transcendence.

Define transcendence? It is a tear in the fabric of the ordinary. It can be a distillation of events that has not occurred to others - therefore something new, always a winning formula, but more commonly, it is a new
combination of the ordinary that falls outside the usual intersection of normal bell curves.

This brings me to the statistical discussion that I promised earlier. Someone wise said that statistics is the mathematics used to make sense of stories. What that means is that we can use statistics to understand how stories are related, and how likely they can related to patterns. And patterns are the stuff of
thought, of art. Patterns are things that occur because the environment is what it is, so a pattern is a tendency, and from there we can rise up through the layers of entropy towards culture, toward life and art.

Statistics came into its own in the early twentieth century, and became so useful that it is now essential in industrial production, in fact a Guinness employee - yes the dark beverage company - discovered a family of distribution curves that help us "know" the level of uncertainty of events or data from very scarce samples, from very short stories, because stories follow natural patterns.

Statistics is counter-intuitive because it is not about individuals, but about groups, about populations, and we are not naturally empathetic, we are competitive, we are locked inside one vision, inside the self and the self wants to think itself unique. Statistics is the tonic to free-will arguments.

Art has to be on the edges of the bell curves, yet it has to make the bell ring from there.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Lars Von Trier, green screens, and the edge of Reality

I want to talk about why I think all this "virtual movie making" is happening and why Lars and his buddies wanted to put an end to it and why all this may be misunderstood.

First why all the green screen effects, backgrounds, characters? Is it because  there may be the feeling that what can be captured on film as reality has become banal, overly accessible? Is it because we can travel much anywhere quite affordably, and so locale is losing its novelty appeal, it is no longer only the rich that can visit Petra or Goa, or the Forbidden City?

So maybe we make things up. Other planets, other systems, alternate reality, dystopia, and fantasy. There even seems to be a trend to recreate the destruction of skyscrapers that marked the start of this decade. Abuse breeds abuse, and we are repeating the behaviour of the Japanese post-nuclear monster movies, on a different scale, with transformer planes and spaceships crashing into futuristic cities. 

 Lars seems to object to this, and rightly so. There are interesting and real (in the non-CGI sense) experiences and associated beauty to be mined still. We are thrill seeking entertainment consumers but we don't have to be just that. So his solution is  to make movies about thing we usually do not see, the intimacies and extreme moments, sex of others. I am not sure this is any better. It may even be  the same, cheap thrills. 

Has the mining of multi-layered human experience ended, has the Nouvelle Vague covered all that territory? Soderberg and Nichols are still doing good stuff on the North American side of that vein are they not? Why not build a bit? Stories and scripts are risky, it is easier to assume that the middle of the bell curve wants the opening weekend escapism, but then I  think there is an opportunity to quell the angst of the consumer culture and the futile lust for the new and special with the quiet calming, dare I say Zen, reality that a focused lens can bring to life. It is a bit like writing about the everyday to make is stand out to make it special, a diary of life as it could be as it is.