Archive for March, 2005

The last days of New York (March 29-31)

Thursday, March 31st, 2005


Nothing too exciting to report on my last few days in New York. On Tuesday, March 29, I wrote up a few book reviews in the morning, and headed over to see the Guggenheim Museum in the afternoon. I don’t think I’d visited the Guggenheim before, so seeing the space was a wonderful experience. I loved the big skylights, the way the various galleries flow into and through each other, and the way you can often peek into galleries from a floor above or below. It plays with the space, and I just love that. So yay.


I wasn’t all too impressed with the main exhibit by Daniel Buren, the centerpiece of which is two large mirrored walls installed in the main circular atrium, forming a corner. It looks kind of neat, especially from the angles where it almost perfectly reflects the atrium, forming a complete circle, but it doesn’t really do much for me. And his work with repetitive stripes is just dull. I did like what he did with the secondary atrium, where he covered the windows with colored films – you can see the splashes of colored light on the right.


None of the rest of the art on display was too exciting. I think they were between exhibits because the main spiral was devoid of art, which is not normally the case. The permanent galleries had some good early modernist work. I did like the work of Franz Marc, particularly Stables (seen at left) and Broken Forms, as well as Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower. Of the Kandinsky collection, I liked their initial acquisition, Composition #8, the best. Having realized my artistic preferences while I was visiting the Met, it was amusing to see how all of the stuff that caught my eye fit those criteria. I’m so predictable.


The next day (Wednesday, March 30), I went out to lunch with a friend of a friend at Junior’s deli in the Grand Central Station food concourse. There was an enormous amount of meat on my reuben. Yummy, but almost painfully too much food. I’m such a lightweight these days. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and with a high of 60 degrees, so I headed uptown to explore the northern half of Central Park, which I’d never done. I started off walking around the reservoir, which I captured in a landscape photo above, and then just kind of wandered around for a bit, by the ice rink (sponsored by Trump!), the ornamental gardens, and the Harlem Meer (Meer is apparently Dutch for lake). It was fun to see all the different people out in the park, from the mothers walking their kids, to the joggers, to the guy practicing his golf swing with what looked like whiffle golf balls, all enjoying the weather.

Afterwards, I wandered by the immense Cathedral of St. John the Divine, since I was in the area. It’s in bad shape, having suffered a fire a few years ago, but its sheer bulk is astonishing. I took off my headphones when I walked in, and then had a better idea, firing up the Requiem of Tomas Luis de Victoria, as performed by the Tallis Scholars. That was cool, walking around this enormous space with this amazing music playing in my ears.

Then back down the island to check out an art exhibition my parents had told me about called Ashes and Snow. It’s this guy who’s spent the last 13 years going around the world and staging photographs of people with animals in a way that’s meant to evoke the fundamental interconnectedness of us all – you can see a bunch of examples on the website. But I thought it was pretty lame. I felt that it was designed to tug on the emotional heartstrings, with wide-eyed children sitting near elephants, falcons, jaguars and other animals. But it felt overtly manipulative to me, sentimental pablum, with the emotional depth of a Hallmark card. I hate being manipulated. I had to blast Nine Inch Nails on my headphones for thirty minutes afterward to scour my brain out.

I hit the Life Cafe for dinner. The place where I was staying was two doors down from the Life Cafe, and I’d been thinking of stopping there my entire time in New York, but it was finally clinched when I noticed the poster for the musical Rent, with a comment that they were mentioned in a song. I was like, “Wait a second! I know that song!”, at the end of the first act, where they all go to the Life Cafe to hang out and drink “Wine and Beer!”. So I had to go there. It was okay. I had a draft Guinness and a bowl of chili. But the Rent connection is pretty amusing.

The next day was my last day in New York, at least this time around. It was another relatively nice day, so after I finished packing up, I wandered down through the Lower East Side to go walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, because I thought that’d be cool. I was walking along the way I thought I needed to go when I saw a sidewalk up onto the bridge. Excellent. I started walking out over the river, and got a good five minutes before I realized I was on the wrong bridge. Oops. This was the Manhattan bridge, not the Brooklyn Bridge. So I retraced my steps, walked further, found the right bridge and walked it. For future reference, Brooklyn Bridge has the pedestrian walkway down the center where you can see stuff. The Manhattan Bridge has a bikeway suspended underneath the bridge, next to the subway tracks, where you can’t see anything.


It’s a pretty walk, with good views of the New York skyline. Plus the bridge itself is a great piece of engineering. And walking across the bridge had the added (uncoincidental) bonus of delivering me to near where Grimaldi’s is, a pizzeria located under the bridge on the Brooklyn side. I’d read a couple good reviews of the place (the Zagat survey rates it as the best in New York), and I had realized that I hadn’t had real New York thin crust pizza in my time in New York, which was unacceptable. This was good stuff. I don’t remember the pizza we had at John’s Pizzeria well enough to compare, alas, but both places are darn good. Grimaldi’s was absolutely packed, which makes sense since it was the tail end of lunch hour, but a bit surprising, because there really didn’t seem to be anything else around it, so I wondered where all the people were coming from. Anyway, I ordered a 16″ pizza (they didn’t do slices), and ate 2/3 of it, which was a bit much. The advantage was that it solved the question of what I was going to do for dinner at the airport, since I now had leftovers.

Then back to the apartment for a final once-over, grab the bags, and head out on the subway to JFK and thence back to my life in the Bay Area. I had a great time in New York. I think this trip might have been long enough. I did pretty much everything I had planned to in New York, and I’m ready to sleep in my own bed again. I’m not quite ready to deal with going back to work, but that’s the way it goes. Gotta pay for this vacation somehow.

P.S. I wrote most of this entry on the plane. Yay laptop. I had been planning to read a bunch more of Latour’s book, but the reading light was busted for my seat, which was a first for me, and so when they turned out the lights, I didn’t have a lot of choices. I worked on this entry, napped a bit, I read some of a social software essay I had downloaded, I rewatched “After the Sunset”, which doesn’t really make any more sense the second time around, I listened to music. Plane rides without reading suck. On the other hand, I read the book on the BART ride home, and I only was able to struggle through about ten pages. Man, that book is dense.

P.P.S. The trip home was a delightful(?) conglomeration of transit options. I left the New York apartment, walked the half mile to the subway, took the subway to near the JFK airport, took the “AirTrain” from the subway stop to the airport terminal, took a plane from JFK to SFO, took BART from SFO to the Macarthur stop, and took a taxi home rather than carry my suitcase for that last mile. Trains, planes, and automobiles, oh my.

Look Up More

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

Damn. I just read about this awesome performance art piece called Look Up More, performed here in New York a week ago Saturday. And I missed it! Damn! I needed better contacts here, apparently. I was about five blocks away when it went off, watching a play. Ah well.

They put volunteers in each of the windows of a massively huge building on the south side of Union Square, and had a conductor outside to coordinate them. They dressed all in black, and on cue, did jumping jacks, danced free style, did a few dance solos, jumping in unison, etc. It’s totally awesome. Check out the video (mp4 format). This is exactly what I need more of in my life. Alas. I am disappointed I missed it, but I’m tempted to sign up for their mailing list just to continue reading about their exploits.

Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, by William J. Mitchell

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

Amazon link

I mentioned in this post how I picked up Me++ at the Whitney Museum, and started reading it. Some interesting ideas here. I found out later from Jofish that Mitchell is the current head of the Media Lab at MIT, which explains a lot about the book. There’s nothing particularly innovative about his ideas, but he packages and explains them well, which makes sense since the Media Lab head is pretty much a public relations position.

It was a weird book to read in a way. While I really liked the general viewpoint of the book, there was nothing in it that made me scramble for a pen to note a particular idea (something which happens regularly with most nonfiction books I read). I think what I liked the most was the vision of our greater interdependence on each other in conjunction with our reduced ties to a particular location. In other words, to support my lifestyle requires a tremendous physical and electronic distribution network. For me to flit around the country, and be reachable no matter where I am because my cell phone and email are always with me is an astonishing phenomenon, even from the viewpoint of twenty years ago. I regularly remind myself on trips to not stress about packing because so long as I have my ID or passport, and a credit card, I can get whatever I need at my destination. I can walk down to the corner store and buy fresh fruit, or a replacement toothbrush, or a current magazine. It’s amazing.

At the same time, our ties to an individual place and location are becoming far weaker. In some parts of the country, it is still common to grow up in one place, maybe go off to college, and then return to set up a home and family within thirty miles of your parents. My hometown is like that. But for many of us, we’ve developed our sense of virtual community, where between ubiquitous electronic communication and plane travel, I can almost as easily maintain ties with friends that live on the opposite coast as I do with my next door neighbor. I see my friend Batman, who currently lives outside of Toronto, more often than I see another friend who lives less than a mile from me.

The other point that I remember from the book was that we should be wary of the implicit nature of these networks. In ancient times, the distribution network was explicit; the entire town was centered around the granary. Even in more recent times, the networks of railroads or freeways made it evident where the centers were. These days, the networks are disappearing from view. The guy sitting in the park muttering to himself is as often a high-powered executive talking on his Bluetooth cellular headset as it is a bum these days. It’s interesting that the networks are dropping from sight at the same time they are becoming more ubiquitous than ever. I suppose it makes sense – to quote McLuhan, “we don’t know who discovered water but we know it wasn’t a fish. A pervasive medium is always beyond perception.”

I also like the vision of circles of control radiating outwards from ourselves, each of which requires more cooperation. He uses the example of climate control. At an individual level, I can choose how many layers of clothing to wear to control how warm or hot I want to be. Moving outward, I can change the temperature of the room I’m in, with the consent of others in the room. Moving outwards, we can change the temperature of the building with a central heating system. He imagines having a weather bubble around the city, and the negotiations associated with that. At each step, it requires more power, and a greater degree of cooperation to achieve an effect. Our control of our environment doesn’t end at our arm’s reach; it attenuates with each sphere of control.

One last thought (wow, I had more to say about this book than I expected). I liked his question of what the Golden Rule means in a distributed society. When we are dependent on a worldwide distribution network, what does it mean to treat others as we would like to be treated? Our actions can have effects on people halfway around the world. If I choose to buy Nike sneakers made in a sweatshop in southeast Asia, am I supporting the children that work there or am I dooming them to continued indentured servitude? In a less polarizing example, anybody that has written on the Internet knows that it’s amazing how your words can haunt you, where they will turn up in the most unlikely of places. When each of our actions can have worldwide consequences, even if those consequences are attenuated greatly, we have to become far more aware of our environment.

Interesting book. It’s a nice summary of some of the social consequences of the new networked capabilities that technology has enabled. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but it’d be a good book to give to a non-technology-oriented friend to have them start thinking about these issues.

Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

Amazon link

While we were driving up to Cornell, Jofish recommended this book. I’d read another of Smith’s books, Spares, borrowed from the library, but it made absolutely no impact on me, and I didn’t remember a single detail. But, in the mornings, while waiting for others to wake up, I picked up Only Forward from Jofish’s bookshelf, and slammed through it.

I thought it was interesting. I liked the world that it takes place in, which is sort of the logical extreme of the Burbclaves in Snow Crash, where the Neighborhoods grow to be completely separate and cut off from each other. And I really like how the protagonist’s flexible viewpoint lets him move between the different Neighborhoods seamlessly, because it picks up on the contextual nature of reality that I’ve been thinking about. The second half gets more metaphysical, and I’m not sure I liked where Smith went with it. But it was a quick read, and had some interesting ideas, so it’s a qualified thumbs up.

Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

Amazon link

After seeing James Carse speak, I was eager to read his book, which I finally got around to doing on this vacation. It’s a deceptively simple book, with lots of short, simple sentences. But there’s a lot of thought packed into those sentences.

I covered his overall gist in that previous post, where finite games are played within boundaries and with the goal of winning and ending them, and infinite games are played to expand one’s horizons and with the goal of continuing them. I just went and skimmed through the sections of this book that I noted as capturing an idea particularly well (the book is divided in 101 sections, each of which is only a page or two long), and it covers such a wide variety of concepts. I liked his application of the finite and infinite games idea in some cases more than others; in particular, I didn’t get much out of his attempt to apply it to sexual relations.

One thing I really liked was the observation that in a finite game, the past is fixed, and can never be changed. No matter what happens, the Chicago Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX in January of 1986. That is a fact. However, in an infinite game, the past is fluid – we can always bring a new perspective to it that changes the way we view events. To use Robert Anton Wilson’s example:

“A cop clubs a man on the street. Observer A sees Law and Order performing their necessary function of restraining the violent with counter-violence. Observer B sees that the cop has white skin and the man hit has black skin, and draws somewhat different conclusions. Observer C arrived earlier and noted that the man pointed a gun at the cop before being clubbed. Observer D hears the cop saying “Stay away from my wife” and has a fourth view of the “meaning” of the situation. Etc.”

Each viewpoint opens up new ways of seeing the situation. We can always tell new stories and change the way we view the universe. I think that this is a powerful observation; far too many people are trapped in a finite world where they can’t even question the assumptions, where there is only one way of seeing. Not only is it sad, but it’s also dangerous; those trapped in a finite world are all too apt to impose their will on infinite players, destroying all alternative viewpoints, rather than open themselves up to the infinite possibilities.

For Carse, conversations should be infinite in the sense that we are open to the possibility of discovering new viewpoints in our interaction with each other. In a finite conversation, each person has their viewpoint and is not going to change, and it is more of a zero-sum negotiation where if I win, you lose (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”). In an infinite conversation, both of us may influence the other, and a new viewpoint can be constructed out of bits of each of our side, such that our eyes are both opened to a new way of viewing the world. Everybody wins. I love these kinds of conversations, where it’s not about winning or losing, but striving to get a different perspective.

There’s so much good stuff in this book. Just go read it. It’s short, but thought-provoking; because it was a small paperback that fit in my jacket pocket, I was carrying it everywhere in New York, and was just as often re-reading previous sections as reading new material. It’s the kind of book where you could read a random section, and ponder how it applies to one’s life today. I need to think more about how I can make myself more of an infinite player, and to move beyond the constrictions of a finite life.

Henry Rollins and Cornell (March 24-28)

Monday, March 28th, 2005

Thursday, March 24, was pretty much a lost day. I was worn out from too many days of sight-seeing and meeting people, and the weather wasn’t great, so I found it difficult to drag myself out. I did a bunch of blog updates in the morning, punted around a bit in the afternoon, and finally headed out in the late afternoon. I walked up Fifth Avenue, admiring the Empire State Building, before heading over to the Theater District to see if I could get a ticket to see Henry Rollins in his new show. I didn’t really know anything about Rollins, but a friend of mine had told me that Rollins was going to be doing shows in New York while I was here, and recommended that I check him out. So I did.

Excellent stuff. Rollins calls himself a spoken-word artist, which basically meant that he got up on stage, and ranted for two and a half hours straight. And he was utterly engrossing the entire time. Whether he was railing against the Bush administration, or describing the seven day plus two hours that he spent on the Trans-Siberian railway, or spending thirty minutes leading up to the “time I was funny”, where the punchline is anticlimactic, but the thirty minutes of storytelling was wonderful, or how he went on a USO tour, and then visited injured soldiers in hospitals in Washington DC, he was always interesting. And it’s hard to do that. Well worth seeing, if you get the chance.

Friday morning, my friend Jofish picked me up. We stopped by his friend’s art installation at a gallery in Chelsea (one of many I didn’t get to), and then headed off to Cornell, where he’s a grad student. Batman drove down from Toronto to meet us, and we spent the weekend talking and eating and drinking, hence the lack of blog updates. I met some of Jofish’s cohort of grad students, and it was fun discussing the research that people were doing. I don’t think I’m ready to go back to grad school yet, but I could see it as a possibility in the right situation. Something in the space of science and technology studies, maybe. Or something about the intersection between social practices and computers.

Monday morning, it was miserable and raining, and since Jofish had a ton of work to do, Batman and I decided to clear out, him driving back to Toronto, and me taking the bus back to NYC. At Ithaca, the bus only had about ten people on it, and I stretched out and it was quite nice. When we hit Binghamton, though, the bus filled up, with every seat taken, so that was less fun. But the bus got back to New York in about five hours, which wasn’t so bad, although I was amused to realize that it took the same amount of time to take a bus from western New York to NYC as it does to take a flight from San Francisco. Distance just doesn’t mean anything any more.

The other nice thing about the bus trip was that I finished off Me++ (Man, I’m like three book reviews behind at this point – maybe tomorrow morning) and picked up Latour’s Politics of Nature, where I slogged through the really dense 20 pages necessary to figure out what’s going on, where he does a four page overview of the book, with 15 pages of term definitions. I think I have a grasp on the overall thesis of the book now, so I think I’m going to be able to tackle the rest of the book now. But man, reading through that hypertextually linked glossary was hard – the perfect task for a cramped bus ride on a rainy day where there’s nothing to see.

So, yeah. Back in New York City. I’ve got two and a half days left before I return to my normal life. Kinda scary. I haven’t even started on a couple of the things I said I was going to do on this vacation, like lay out the outline for the cognitive subroutines book. Man. I need to buckle down.

Virtual cues

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

There was one particularly interesting topic at the dinner party which I’ll record here so that I hopefully pick up on it later. We were discussing the role of technology-mediated communication such as cell phones and email in our lives. One woman was trying to make the case that we should give up on it, that it was only making our lives shallower and more wasteful, that it wasn’t “real” communication. She made the good point that we would never conduct an interview over email, because there’s so many cues that you pick up when you’re talking to somebody in person. Given how much of my social life I conduct via technology, though, I had to disagree that it was a complete waste of time.

My contention, which I need to develop further at some point, is that we’ve had centuries to develop our ability to read physical cues. And we can still easily get fooled, because people like con artists take advantage of our trust. I think that we are starting to develop the understanding of cues necessary to make similar distinctions in the virtual world. In the real world, we’re well trained to thin-slice and ignore most of the information coming in. I think a few of us in my generation have, and many more in the next generation will have, the ability to effectively parse information online at a preconscious level and ignore big swathes of it to find what we’re looking for. I used the example of me versus my mother as far as chain letters and other net dreck – my mom will sometimes forward me stuff that I immediately dismiss as outdated or a scam or something, just because I’ve been on the net longer and have more experience with understanding what a legitimate email looks like. Or my ability to effectively use google and other online tools to find things in a few seconds that other people can not find in an hour.

We’ll also develop better tools for managing our virtual attention – right now, you pretty much have to look at everything in your inbox, but as spam filters get better, we’ll find ways to reduce the cognitive load of dealing with computer communications. I think. It’s yet another interesting area of exploration for products that would be really useful, even though I don’t really have a good picture of what they would look like.

We also discussed how the use of such technologies changes our communication. The difference between writing letters to keep in touch versus an email list, for instance. The letter is good for deep one-on-one communication. The email list is good for shallow group awareness. Is one of these “better” than the other? It depends on your values. I think both have their place. I’m definitely in much better touch with my college group of friends because of various email lists than I ever would have been if I had to write individual letters to all of them. At the same time, I have my core group of close friends who I see regularly, even though some of them live on the other coast.

As somebody pointed out, to some extent, the email lists promoting shallow community awareness are a virtual replacement for the small town community we once had, where everybody was peripherally aware of everybody else’s business, thanks to a few gossip-mongers at the general store. Instead of being tied to a physical location, though, these communities are now online, a topic which I started to address in this old post, where I point out that until recently, “the idea of being able to form a community with people who were not geographically co-located with you was laughable.”

I guess the point is that communication technology is not good or bad in and of itself. It’s how we use it. Certain technologies encourage certain ways of interacting, thank you McLuhan, but we still choose which technologies we use. If I want shallower group interactions, I use an email list. If I want a one-on-one conversation, I use instant messaging or a letter or a phone call or a personal visit. Having more options at our disposal is a good thing in my opinion, so long as we master how to use them effectively. Otherwise we disappear into information overload. And that’s where developing better virtual cues to guide us through these virtual communication spaces is a high priority. Hah! Managed to complete the circle and bring us back to where we started!

The Met (Wednesday, March 23)

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

I’d been saving the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a rainy day, and Wednesday definitely qualified. It wasn’t just raining, it was snowing, and cold and miserable. A perfect day to spend inside. As usual, I got off to a late start, but it worked out fine. I got to the museum around 1:30pm, and spent the next four hours until the museum closed at 5:30 wandering around. Their collections are just too huge. I had to do some massive triage to even have a hope. So I ignored all sculpture and decorative arts, because I generally don’t find those interesting. I punted on most of the art of other cultures, although I did walk through the big Egyptian temple, because that’s just neat. So I mostly concentrated on the American wing and European paintings, with visits to old favorites like Arms and Armor, and Musical Instruments.

I had an insight into my own preferences while walking around the paintings. I realized that I didn’t care for bright primary colors, for simplistic shapes, and for “realistic” depictions. Anything that seems to say “this is the way it is”. I like having different perspectives, of having new ways of looking at things. I live in a world of grays, not in a world of black and white, right and wrong. So paintings that are slightly abstract, paintings that have a more muted palette with faded blues and greens and grays, those appeal to me. Not fully abstract. I still can’t get into the work of Rothko or Pollock or anything. Anyway. It was interesting to me.


It was also fun to realize my eye for art is slowly improving. I was able to recognize the work of most of the masters like van Gogh and Monet. When I was walking through the American wing, I saw a painting and thought “Wow, that looks like JMW Turner’s work.” Then I read the little placard which said that the artist’s use of light “suggests the artist’s appreciation of the English master JMW Turner”. It turns out there was a whole school of American landscape artists, the Hudson River School, whose work was heavily influenced by Turner, so I spent some time browsing that section, because I love that particular use of light, the way it is almost impressionistic in the way it illuminates a scene, as illustrated by the work by Thomas Cole seen to the right.

After getting kicked out of the museum at closing, I had to head crosstown to get to the dinner party I was going to attend. Rather than take the subway down, across and back up, I decided to brave the elements and walk across Central Park. It was a reminder of things I don’t miss about the East Coast – by this point, the snow had accumulated enough on the warm ground to turn to slush. Yum! I made it across the park, found a cafe, and hung out there reading and warming up for a bit. Unfortunately, by the time I left, the snow was actually blowing sideways. I gave up on the umbrella as being useless in that strong a wind, and trudged through the slush off to my dinner party, where we ate good food and had interesting conversations until midnight, of which more in another post.

Chelsea art and Shockheaded Peter (March 22)

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

I spent the morning catching up on blogging, and blathering on about the meaning of power, before heading out at lunch time. It was a beautiful spring day, sunny and getting up to about 50 degrees or so. That, combined with the fact that my one-week unlimited subway ride card had run out, convinced me to walk rather than take the subway. I walked from the East Village over to Chelsea again, and spent a couple hours wandering through the galleries there. Since it was a nice day, I wore my spiffy sportcoat, which immediately upgrades anything I wear it with. That plus the hip Adidas sneakers that I bought with my friend Wilfred, at least made me feel like I was dressed well enough to venture into these galleries and be taken seriously.

A few exhibitions that I thought were neat (again, this is mostly for my own recollection):

David LaChapelle had a really neat exhibition. He’s a photographer – the exhibition had two sets of photographs, one with him staging somebody dressed as Jesus in a bunch of sketchy situations, like Jesus presiding over a gang meeting posed as the Last Supper, reminding us that Jesus spoke to and was with the outcasts of his day, the disenfranchised. The other was similarly stark but brightly colored stagings of what looked like a pimp and prostitute. Very colorful and somewhat shocking. Looking at his website, I really like the portrait work that he’s done too.



I liked the black and white photography of Masato Okazaki. He starkly captures the decay of buildings, such as the piece to the left.

I liked the Sublime Sanctum exhibition I saw of Madalina. I particularly liked Freedom, seen at the right.

After that, I walked over to the Theater District. I’d had vague thoughts of trying to get rush tickets to Wicked or Avenue Q. The way it works for those two musicals is that you fill out an entry form for a lottery ticket, and then they pick the 12-20 lucky winners. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but when I showed up, and saw the hundreds of people lined up to fill out the form, I punted. I walked over to the half-price booth to see what was available, and saw that they had tickets for Shockheaded Peter for 35% off, so I took one of those tickets. It turned out to be way in the back and off to the side, but the theater was small enough that it didn’t matter.

I had wanted to see Shockheaded Peter when it came to San Francisco, but never got around to it. It had been described as subversive, sinister and stylish, all of which appealed to me. Alas, it was a disappointment. It’s supposed to be shocking because it tells fractured morality tales where children misbehaved and are killed or punished. Like the girl who plays with matches and burns herself up. Or the boy who’s told to stop sucking his thumbs and doesn’t, and gets his thumbs cut off. But that’s it. They tell you they’re going to do that at the top of the show, and then they do it. There’s nothing surprising, nothing even particularly whimsical about their presentation of the material. I wanted something that would make me involuntarily grin or be shocked or something. It was just kind of eh.

That being said, the production and staging was fabulous. This was a show that people who produce shows should see to note how a little can go a long way with some imagination. For instance, the bit with the girl burning herself up with matches. To simulate that, she had on a skirt, with a bunch of red-and-yellow colored underskirts. As she allegedly caught on fire, she started lifting her outer skirt a bit, so that the red poked through, and then started dancing around the stage, with her lifting the skirt higher and higher, until it was over her head and all you saw was the red and yellow underskirts. And then she jumped into a stage trapdoor. Creative and simple staging of something that could have been done very poorly.

There were lots of nice little touches like that, with effective use of paper cutout scenery and dropping things from the top of their set. But the stories they were telling were just not interesting enough to me. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Alas.

What is powerful, part two

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005

[Apologies for the barrage of posts - I'm trying to be more disciplined about spending a couple hours writing in the morning, and, well, I generate a lot of verbiage. The editing part still needs work obviously. But you'll have to suck it up. Or just skip it.]

In the previous post, I suggested a definition of powerful, as it relates to art and ideas, as being that which connects people. But being the contrary person I am, I’m immediately going to offer another viewpoint. Last night while thinking about what the value of a network of ideas was versus an individual idea, I wondered if I could tie this whole discussion into the science of networks, as described in Six Degrees. Perhaps in the tipping point phenomenon. I mentioned in my first cognitive subroutines post how I occasionally have flashes of insight, where ideas realign into a new pattern. Is that a tipping point in my neural net? Do different people have different threshold levels of evidence, such that some generalize quickly, and others need a preponderance of evidence?

Then another thought struck me. The thing that makes the small world phenomenon work is the unanticipated links between disparate parts of the network. The small world phenomenon doesn’t work if people only know their local friends. It’s only when a few people (not many at all according to Watts) can link their local set of friends to a set of friends far away. The far links are the powerful ones that make the entire network “small”.

Once I thought of it that way, the extension to ideas was obvious – ideas that connect wildly disparate modes of thought are powerful, because they link up different areas of the idea network. The most powerful ideas are the ones that cross disciplines, connecting things that nobody thought were even related. Maxwell unifying electricity and magnetism. The electron shell theory providing a basis for the chemical periodic table. I like this perspective because it makes the connection to the science of networks explicit. We can think about how the different idea networks interrelate, and how to construct links between them that will make the idea network as a whole more compact.

So this is a different definition of powerful than the one in the previous post. That previous post started with art and moved to ideas; can I do the reverse and apply this new definition to art? It’s unclear. What does it mean to connect different areas of art? To take one example, music that breaks barriers is often seen as revolutionary. Rock and roll built off of the blues, but brought it into the mainstream. I suspect the same is true in art, but I’m not sure I know my art history well enough to come up with any examples. Perhaps Gauguin’s incorporation of Pacific Island art into his work.

Now we have two definitions of powerful. One is about the effect something has on us personally, and our connections with each other. The other is about the effect something has on the network, growing the capabilities of the network by providing more links, where the advancement of the field is perceived as being a good in its own right. Is one definition “better” than the other? It’s hard to say. But I find it interesting that my speculation on art as a web has opened up into this whole separate discussion on value and power. Down the rabbit hole we go.

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Speaking of biking, I just finished the San Juan huts mountain bike tour from Durango to Moab: plus.google.com/u/1/+EricNehrl…

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