O. Winston Link exhibit of steam locomotive photography closes next Sunday

For today’s post, head over to my blog at Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Hub, where I’ve written about the Grohmann Museum’s exhibit of steam locomotive photography by the famed O. Winston Link.  Plus I share a fun background story about the photographer with a Jake Gyllenhaal connection :)


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“Smart” is kind of creepy

Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a story headlined “Madison software firm Solomo develops customer-tracking technology.”  Yes, I’m creeped out, although seeing this story just pulls together a lot of things that have been creeping me out for a while now.

Basically today’s article talks about how retailers will soon be able to analyze their customers’ behavior and demo/psychographics.

“We see the indoor location market exploding,” Solomo founder and CEO Liz Eversoll said.  ” . . . You wouldn’t build a website today without analytics, and tomorrow you won’t have a location without intelligence.”

“We think every location in the world will be a smart location over the next few years,” Eversoll said.

“Smart” in this case means a building is equipped with sensors that can pick up the presence of a smartphone, triangulate its location and potentially ping the phone back.

Stores already have the ability to track Internet-enabled devices (iPods, smartphones, etc.) when a user enters a Wi-Fi zone.  If the device’s Wi-Fi is turned on, that is.  I rarely think to switch my Wi-Fi off, which means that the minute I enter a department store, my device is spotted.

Here’s the part that creeps me out.  In conjunction with the store’s security cameras, any store personnel who wanted to “analyze” my shopping behavior could figure out who I was.  My movements could be tracked until the moment I made a purchase.  If I used a credit card, the store would then also have my name and lots of other convenient “analytics” information.

A while ago I read an article that described how Microsoft wanted to sell software to police departments that would link all in-store “private” security cameras with outdoor “public” security cameras.  Great for solving crimes.  But maybe also a great source of “analytics” revenue?

My new GM vehicle is equipped with OnStar.  Great safety feature.  But now GM knows where my vehicle is at all times.  If I’m in an accident an operator will apparently start talking to me on my vehicle’s phone.  But if the phone can be activated from afar, does that also mean that someone could be listening in on any “private” conversations I might have in my vehicle?

Do I sound paranoid?  I’m not.  But I’m starting to connect the dots and realize that there is no such thing as privacy anymore.  For a long time the more future-embracing folks among us have been telling us to get over the whole privacy hang-up.  Well, there’s really nothing to get over anymore.  Privacy is gone.

Drones the size of insects (no kidding) can be outfitted with cameras.  Think there’s anyplace you can go for privacy that an insect can’t get to?

What other interesting, creepy things have I read about lately?  Well, Digital Trends had an article on April 10th about a new product that’s a tiny glass capsule designed to be inserted into your body, most likely your hand, containing a chip that allows you to interact with compatible devices just by waving your hand.  Kind of like The Clapper, the sound-activated on-off switch that allows you to switch off a lamp by clapping your hands together.  Except now you can do way more than that with just a swish of your finger.

At its heart, this chip alters the relationship between human and machine.  No longer does a person merely operate a machine; that person is the machine.

Last summer videos of car “hackings” were making the rounds, and some have speculated that the death of journalist Michael Hastings last June in a fiery, high-speed car crash was actually an assassination.  I have no opinion.  There’s a fine line between legitimate suspicion and wacko conspiracy theories, and I just don’t know enough about this case to even comment.  But it sure was enlightening to see the videos and to realize that computers have made automobiles vulnerable to takeover by outside forces.  If you missed those videos, you might want to take a look at this one.

Makes me want to keep an older vehicle on hand, just in case.  NOT that I’m PARANOID :)

Remember the Y2K hysteria?  Computers make our lives better, no question.  But what are we giving up in exchange?

A software bug took out power across a huge swath of Canada and the U.S. in 2003 (see the map below, from Wikipedia).

During the massive blackout, people couldn’t even refuel their vehicles to escape to somewhere that still had power because all the pumps at the gas stations were powered by computers.  I wonder if it’s even possible to find an old-fashioned mechanical pump anymore.  Remember those?  They made that “ka-ching, ka-ching” sound as the numbers rolled? :)

Ray Kurzweil’s ideas on the coming “Singularity” predict that things will start changing for humans big time in the next ten years.  Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have believed it.  But I believe it now.  Bill Joy published an incredibly provocative article in Wired way back in April 2000, titled “Why the future doesn’t need us” and subtitled “Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”

The gist of these articles is that humans will merge with computers, and the changes will happen so gradually that we’ll barely notice . . . or object.  By the end of the 21st century, they say, human beings will no longer exist in their current form.  Nor will humans any longer be the dominant “life” form on earth.  We will exist to service the machines we have created.

In one article I read, which I couldn’t easily find to link to just now (but I’ll keep trying to find it and post if and when I do), it was postulated that humans will have a symbiotic relationship with the dominant artificial intelligence (AI).  At that point we’ll serve a function similar to the one currently served by gut microbes in our own human bodies.  That is, we’ll live in a culture that is complex and meaningful in its own right, but our ultimate purpose will be to maintain the machinery of the larger system.

A very chilling thought.  And frankly one that creeps me out.  Humans reduced to intestinal bacteria?

Maybe this future is inevitable.  But for now I’ll do whatever I can to avoid “selling out” my freedoms and privacy in exchange for the ease and practicality of “smart.”  I’ll keep a dumb phone for as long as possible.  I’ll keep one of our ancient non-computerized vehicles in decent operating condition.  I’ll read print instead of electronic texts whenever feasible.

That this will be hugely inconvenient, there is no question.  But as Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”


Posted in Creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, History, Life, Technology, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer), News, Popular culture, Science and nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Boston Marathon, one year later

As is all over the news, today marks the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings near the finish line by two brothers with presumed terrorist motives.

The Boston Globe has a short article about the brief ceremony held earlier today at the spots where each of the two explosions occurred.  The brother and sister of slain 8-year-old Martin Richard laid a wreath at the site of the first explosion, and a second wreath was placed down the street at the site of the second.  Two police officers will stand on guard with each wreath all day.

Meanwhile, CNN has an article update on the status of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he awaits trial in November.

As events unfolded last year and the public was introduced to conflicting accounts of who Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was, I wrote a blog post that examined the troubling cloud of ambiguity that surrounded him.  Part of what drew me was the stunned disbelief expressed by people who knew him that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could possibly have been involved in such a terrible act.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev returned to the campus of the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth after the Boston Marathon bombings. He attended classes and went to a party.

“He was just relaxed,” the unnamed witness said. Tsarnaev led such a typical student life after the bombing that even after his photo was released as a suspect, some who knew him didn’t make the connection. “We made a joke like—that could be Dzhokhar,” said a 22-year-old resident assistant at the dorms where Tsarnaev lived. “But then we thought it just couldn’t be him. Dzhokhar? Never.”

According to an article in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, the UMass–Dartmouth campus was evacuated as a precaution once it became clear that Tsarnaev was a suspect, and his dorm room was searched for possible bombs. A young woman who lived in that dorm expressed the same confusion as others when interviewed. So many of the terrible things that happen, from terrorist attacks to mass-shootings by social outcasts, are connected with people who appear to have a screw loose, she said. In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, she was at a loss for an explanation:

You usually get an indication of somebody you shouldn’t be around. Now that that is shattered, what do you do? Am I supposed to start worrying about going to school? Am I supposed to stop going to college?

If you’re interested in reading more, you can find my post from last year here: “The banality of evil (Boston Marathon bombing).”

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The truth about statues

I wrote this very short memoir/essay as an exercise at my writing group’s meeting yesterday.  Because I haven’t posted in over a week, I decided to share it today.

The Truth About Statues

When I was very young, I thought that statues were actually dead people encased in concrete.  It made sense, as every statue I’d ever seen appeared to be a well-known dead person.  But one statue greatly troubled me.  It was a child with wings, an angel gazing down into a dark pool of water.

“Mommy,” I asked once.  “Was that a real little boy they made that statue from?”

“Probably,” she said.

“Did his parents want him to be a statue?” I persisted.

“Probably so.”

The thought appalled me.  “Would you ever let me be a statue?”

“I suppose,” my mother replied.  She was busy ironing and watching her soap opera on television.  “Would you like to be a statue?”


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Standing Up to Violence

Emily January Peterson has an excellent post today, “Girls’ Studies: Violence,” over on her blog The Bookshelf of Emily J.  I was going to leave a comment there, but I realized there was so much I wanted to say that it might be better to respond with a post of my own.

Emily J.’s essay analyzes a song, “He Hit Me,” originally performed by The Crystals.  In it a girl sings about how her boyfriend hit her when he thought she liked someone else.  It “felt like a kiss” to her because that’s when she knew he truly loved her.  If he hadn’t, she tells herself, he wouldn’t have gotten so angry.  At the song’s happy ending, the boyfriend takes the girl in his arms “with all the tenderness there is” and kisses her.  That’s when she knows she “is his.”

After discussing the song and all it implies about power and ownership historically in relationships between men and women, Emily J. mentions her own first boyfriend.  They were fifteen and in high school.  He constantly did things to make her look stupid or hurt her, but she had thought his behavior was normal, if immature.  Before doing this assignment for her “Girls’ Studies” course (she is in graduate school, working on a Ph.D. in English), she had never heard this song before.  Now, after analyzing the song’s lyrics, she realizes that her boyfriend was actually violent rather than immature.

Reading Emily J.’s blog post sparked a memory of my own, something I haven’t thought of in years.  There was a couple in my high school who had an abusive relationship.  Actually he was the violent one; she just continued dating him.  He was captain (or one of the captains) of our football team.  In a small town like ours, where nearly every adult had graduated from the local high school and the whole town turned out for the Friday-night games, football players were a pretty big deal.  All the guys in our school liked him.  When we told them how mean he was to his girlfriend, they just said they had never seen that side of him.

One day in our senior year, the couple was walking down the hall in front of us between classes.  They must have been arguing because suddenly she cried out and ran into the girls’ bathroom, where presumably she thought she’d be safe.  He followed her inside.

My friends and I exchanged stunned glances.

And then something happened that thrilled me.  Our newly-hired girls basketball and track coach must have seen what happened.  Next thing we knew, she had rushed into that girls’ bathroom, pulled him out by the arm, shoved him up against the wall, and gotten her face right up in his.  I don’t remember what she said, only that she was yelling at him.

Finally.  Finally, someone was taking action and standing up to this bully.  And it was a woman!  Not the principal, not the football coach, not the other guys on the team.

Except we didn’t think of him as a “bully,” exactly.  We didn’t even really have adequate language back then to define him or describe his abusive behavior.  The phrase I recall us using was that he “treated” his girlfriend “badly.”

One edition of the “Chicken Soup” series of books for kids has an essay by a girl who was being molested by a family member.  She didn’t know that’s what was happening, though.  She felt very uncomfortable about the way the men in her immediate and extended family treated her but couldn’t express herself in a way that would make them stop.  Then one Sunday a visiting preacher at her church gave a sermon that used the word “incest.”

Suddenly everything became clear to her.  Once she had a word for it, she understood the concept.  By naming the acts, she gained power over her circumstances for the first time.

It has been a long time since I read this incest essay, but I’m pretty sure it is in Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul.  Pretty disturbing stuff.  The comments on Amazon include several 1-star reviews from parents unhappy that their kids were unwittingly exposed to such graphic subject matter in a book that promised on its front cover “101 Stories of Courage, Hope and Laughter for Kids ages 8–12.”  That age range seems quite young for stories of incest and sexual predation.  Hardly the uplifting tales one expects from this feel-good franchise.

Yet, on the other hand, maybe kids shouldn’t be too sheltered.  Without exposure to ideas and language, you don’t recognize what you’re seeing when faced with it for the first time.  You feel helpless to act because you can’t articulate why something is wrong.  And absent that articulation, you feel vaguely guilty yourself, like maybe somehow you’re at fault for the thing that makes you uneasy.

You confuse conflict and drama with romantic passion.  You think anger is an expression of love.  Getting hit feels like a kiss.

It’s confusing.  I acknowledge the irony  of my awed reaction to the girls basketball and track coach’s somewhat physical (violent?) response to the bully’s violence.  Sadly, there’s even more irony to this story.  This guy had multiple abusive relationships, and in the end he was shot and killed by the brother of a woman he was dating.  Sounds like justice to me.  What goes around comes around.  But the brother went to prison.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are both credited with turning around the old Code of Hammurabi to say that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.  Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek, literally offering the other side of their face to be struck after someone has hit them.

I’m awed by the courage required for that response to violence, too.

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Art -vs- Science: An Artificial Divide

I was paging through the weekend Wall Street Journal this morning and practically jumped out of my chair when I saw Walter Murch’s face looking out from the “Review” section.

Murch is an Oscar-winning film editor who has worked on movies like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The English Patient, and Cold Mountain.  I know his face so well because he is featured prominently in an excellent documentary about film editing called The Cutting Edge that is on the extra-features disc of my DVD of Bullitt.  (Wikipedia entry on this documentary is here.)

The interview/profile in today’s Wall Street Journal, “From ‘The Godfather’ to the God Particle,‘” is occasioned by the upcoming release of a new film, opening next month across the country, called Particle Fever.  (If you’re not a WSJ subscriber and you are prompted to log in after you link to the article from my blog, try opening a new tab and doing a search for the article’s title and the date, March 22, 2014.  You may be able to get the entire article that way, without needing to log in.)  Particle Fever is a documentary directed by Mark Levinson (The English Patient).  The film recounts the 2008 launch of the Large Hadron Collider and the experiments done there leading to confirmation of the Higgs boson, or “God particle.”

So interesting!  I love this Don Lincoln TED video illustrating physicist David Miller’s cocktail-party explanation of how the Higgs boson works.

Today’s WSJ article also describes Murch’s longstanding interest in science.  He is very interested in and knowledgeable about physics, particularly string theory.  He also appears to be a real Renaissance man.  I just took a look at his Wikipedia profile, and in addition to his film work, he has translated short stories by the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte.

Given a tape recorder as a 10-year-old, Murch was fascinated with sound.  His first work in film was actually in editing and mixing sound for Francis Ford Coppola, whom he met in film school (along with George Lucas, with whom he would also go on to work).  If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now, you no doubt remember the image of a ceiling fan in Martin Sheen’s Saigon hotel room juxtaposed with the sound of a helicopter.  That was Murch’s work.  During post-production on Apocalypse Now, according to the Wall Street Journal article, Murch also helped Dolby develop a new way of reproducing sound in theaters that would make viewers “feel” what was happening on the screen.  In fact, Murch is credited with coining the term “sound designer” to describe the contributions of people like him and Ben Burtt (Star Wars) to a film’s production.  (Almost two years ago I wrote a post about a great DVD-extra on my copy of WALL·E featuring Ben Burtt talking about the history of sound design.  Read it here if you’re interested.)

Our society seems to have allowed itself to become artificially separated by disciplinary boundaries.  The almost binary world view created by the resulting “silos” is odd to say the least and catastrophic to say the most.  We need more Walter Murches.  Not to mention more Mark Levinsons, who in addition to directing Hollywood movies has a Ph.D. in particle physics from Berkeley.

Every time I read about funding for STEM education being increased while budgets for art education are slashed I cringe at the shortsightedness.  Art and science nourish each other, and studying each in isolation so unnecessarily handicaps students and shortchanges society.

Ars sine scientia nihil est (“Art without science is nothing”) is the famous dictum attributed to 14th-century French architect Jean Mignot.  The opposite is also true.  It’s fascinating to learn about harmonics and fractals and the mathematical underpinnings of the universe.

Stuff like the golden ratio, for instance.  Science is made of art, just as art is made of science.  You can see it in the proportions of Greek and Roman architecture.  You can see it in these photos of fluid dynamics made by students of Jean Hertzberg at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

The 21st century will be an era of integration.  Generalists who can bridge multiple disciplines will be needed to make sense of and find meaning in the overwhelming amounts of information produced by Big Data.  People who understand this are way out ahead of those who don’t.

The press kit for Particle Fever includes a quote from one of the scientists featured in the film.  I think I’ll use it to close this post:

Why do we do science?  Why do we do art?  It is the things that are not directly necessary for survival that make use human.

Posted in Art and music, Creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, Higher education, Life, Movies and film, Natural world, Nature, News, Popular culture, Science and nature, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lana Del Rey: Robbed of the Oscar, as her Maleficent follow-up confirms

I was astonished when Lana Del Rey’s haunting “Young and Beautiful” from The Great Gatsby wasn’t even nominated for Best Song.

“Young and Beautiful” should have won!  Just one more reminder that awards are not the final arbiter of quality.

Now comes the new Disney film Maleficent, a backstory look at the villainess of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, starring Angelina Jolie and featuring Lana Del Rey’s fabulously spooky version of “Once Upon a Dream,”  a song from the 1959 animated movie based on Tchaikovsky’s original music for the ballet The Sleeping Beauty.

Will Ms. Del Rey win recognition for her magnificent Maleficent cover?  I hope so.  I love her voice, love her unique approach to styling a song.

Although . . . not completely unique, now that I think about it.

One of my favorite television shows ever was “SCTV,” an early ’80s late-night show out of Toronto that had an incredible all-star cast (pre-stardom): Eugene Levy, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, Joe Flaherty, and Dave Thomas.  Every time I listen to Lana Del Rey, I can’t help but recall this SCTV skit  advertising Perry Como’s triumphant return to the concert stage in the “Still Alive” tour, featuring an almost comatose Como (Eugene Levy) surrounded by disco-era dancers and backup singers.  Mr. Relaxation, indeed :)

To conclude: Lana Del Rey deserved the 2013 Academy Award for Best Original Song, in my opinion.  Sadly, her complete reworking of “Once Upon a Dream” won’t qualify because the song was written for Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty.  She probably can’t even win the Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media, because that award also goes to the composer, not the performer—and although now nearly unrecognizable as the original, “Once Upon a Dream” was written by Jack Lawrence and Sammy Fain.

But maybe Del Rey could win the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) if she is the person responsible for the dark and foreboding arrangement of this new version of the song.  I hope so.  What a talent!

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