Category Archives: thoughts

Thoughts, musings, etc.

Fran Allen and the social relevance of computer science

If you haven’t read it yet, Peter Seibel’s Coders at Work (2009), is one of the best books about computer programming that doesn’t have actual code in it. It distills “nearly eighty hours of conversations with fifteen all-time great programmers and computer scientists,” with equal parts given to fascinating technical minutiae (including the respondents’ best/worst bug hunting stories) and to learning how these coders came to think the way they do.

So in a book full of interviews worth reading, it’s not quite accurate to say that Fran Allen stands out. It’s better to say that Allen is different; as a Turing Award recipient for her “pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of optimizing compiler techniques,” Allen spends much of her interview arguing that compiler optimization is woefully unstudied. Allen even argues that the popular adoption of C was a step backwards for computer science, which is kind of an alien concept for those of us today who almost exclusively study and use high-level languages.

Allen is also different in that she’s the only woman in Seibel’s book, and understandably, she has a few thoughts about their place in computer science. The summary of it is that she’s not at all optimistic about the “50/50 by 2020″ initiative (the goal to have women make up half of computer science degree earners by 2020). And the problem, Allen (who was a math teacher herself) is not in the curriculum:

I feel it’s our problem to solve. It’s not telling the educators to change their training; we in the field have to make it more appealing.

What I found particularly insightful in Allen’s interview with Seibel is that it’s not just about the need for more role models, because the current lack of women programmers is going to place a limit on that. In Allen’s opinion, girls have shown an equal aptitude for science, especially in medicine, biology, and ecology. So she suspects that the problem is with how _limited_ computer science can appear as a profession.

At my little high school in Croton, New York, we had a Westinghouse person nationally come in fifth. And they have a nice science program. Six of the seven people in it this year at the senior level are women doing amazing pieces of individual science.

What’s happening with those women is that they’re going into socially relevant fields. Computer science could be extremely socially relevant, but they’re going into earth sciences, biological sciences, medicine. Medicine is going to be 50/50 very soon. A lot of fields have belied that theory, but we [in computer science] haven’t.

I don’t necessarily think this perception that programming doesn’t seem to have a purpose behind obsessively sitting in front of a computer all day is exclusive to women. Even for those who’ve pursued a degree in computer science, it’s not clear how programming has relevance that is not an end to itself.

Check out this 2008 Slashdot thread, in which a recent computer science undergrad asks for suggestions of “Non-Programming Jobs for a Computer Science Major?” because he can’t think of ways to use computational thinking that doesn’t directly involve code. Or more recently, this screed by a NYU journalism professor, who sees coding as a trend du jour, little more than a pointless struggle to learn more code before a new language becomes hot and makes you obsolete.

I can’t claim to have insight myself, because when I left college with a computer engineering degree, I had no idea how to use it except to be a computer engineer, which I didn’t want to be, so I ditched it entirely at my first journalism job. Years later, I’ve slowly learned how to use programming to, well, practice journalism’s core function of interpreting and disseminating information. However, I attribute this to how much our world has become digitized with far fewer bottlenecks in applying computational thinking. So now it seems much more obvious that computer science can be as directly relevant to general society as medicine and ecology.

Non-scientists often assume that all scientists, and similarly left-brained people, can equally grok the concepts of programming. But this is as wrong an assumption as thinking that any programmer can easily pass the MCATs. Within the field of biological research, for example, there’s a difference of roles for biologists who can program and those who cannot.

The two fields of research are described as “wet-lab” and “dry-lab” work. In a recent issue of Nature, Roberta Kwok writes about how “biologists frustrated with wet-lab work can find rewards in a move to computational research“:

During her master’s programme in genetics from 2005 to 2008, Sarah Hird dreaded going into the lab. She was studying subspecies of red-tailed chipmunks and had become discouraged and frustrated by the uncertainties of molecular-biology experiments. She spent six weeks trying to amplify repetitive sequences in chipmunk DNA as part of an experiment to identify genetic differences between populations — but to no avail. Hird tried replacing reagents, switching to a different machine for running the polymerase chain reaction and decontaminating the sample-preparation area. Nothing worked. And then, for reasons that she never quite deciphered, the technique suddenly started working again.

By the end of her master’s, Hird had come to dislike working in a wet lab, and she decided not to apply for PhD programmes.

About six months after finishing her master’s degree, while working as a part-time technician at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, she discovered a better direction. The lab’s principal investigator had suggested that she learn a computer-programming language so that she could help with a simulation project. Hird, who had never programmed before, taught herself the language using a book and online tutorials, and quickly became engrossed.

“Once I started, it was like an addiction,” she says. She enjoyed developing algorithms, and she found the software-debugging process less frustrating than troubleshooting wet-lab problems. The work felt more under her control.

Later in her article, Kwok interviews a German biologist at the Max Planck Institute who offers this insight:

He notes that newcomers may stay more motivated if they can apply computational skills to real scientific problems rather than to the ‘toy’ exercises in a computer-science class. For example, a researcher who works with many image files could write a program to automatically perform processing steps, such as contrast enhancement, on thousands of images.

If young students – male or female – are turned off at the prospect of learning computer science, it’s not enough to just have role models. The usefulness of computational thinking are far too broad for just that. Why should only dedicated computer scientists benefit from the techniques and theory of programming, as if the importance of writing should only be left up to published writers?

Ideally the importance of computational thinking would be part of the general curriculum, and not just as a separate programming class, but integrated in the same way that you must read and write and perform calculations in your biology, physics, and economics class. But while we wait for that change to come about eventually – if at all – those of us in the field can help to increase diversity in computer science by increasing the visibility of computer science’s diverse impacts and applications.

After Allen complains about computer science’s too-narrow scope, Seibel simply asks, “So why do you like it?” She responds:

Part of it is that there’s the potential for new ideas every day. One sees something, and says, “Oh, that’s new.” The whole field gets refreshed very frequently. It’s very exciting to think about what the potential for all of this is and the impacts it can have.

Isaac Asimov made a statement about the future of computers-I don’t know whether it’s right or not-that what they’ll do is make every one of us much more creative. Computing would launch the age of creativity. One sees some of that happening-particularly in media. Kids are doing things they weren’t able to do before-make movies, create pictures.

We tend to think of creativity as a special gift that a person has, just as being able to read and write were special gifts in the Dark Ages-things only a few people were able to do. I found the idea that computers are the enablers of creativity very inspiring.

There’s a lot of other great stuff and stories in Allen’s interview, including her attempt to teach Fortran to IBM scientists, the need for compiler optimization in the age of petaflop-speed computing, and how other women in the industry, including one “who essentially was the inventor of multiprogramming”, have been robbed of their achievements. Read the rest of Allen’s interview, and 14 other equally great interviews with coders, in Seibel’s book, Coders at Work.

Peter Norvig on cleverness and having enough data

I’m reposting this entry, near verbatim, from The Blog of Justice, which picks out a keen quote from Google/Stanford genius, Peter Norvig, from his Google Tech Talk on August 9, 2011.

“And it was fun looking at the comments, because you’d see things like ‘well, I’m throwing in this naive Bayes now, but I’m gonna come back and fix it it up and come up with something better later.’ And the comment would be from 2006. [laughter] And I think what that says is, when you have enough data, sometimes, you don’t have to be too clever about coming up with the best algorithm.”

I think about this insight more times than I’d like to admit, in those frequent situations where you end up spending more time on a clever, graceful solution because you look down on the banal work of finding and gathering data (or, in the classical pre-computer world, fact-finding and research).

But I also think about it in the context of people who are clever, but don’t have enough data to justify a “big data” solution. There’s an unfortunate tendency among these non-tech-savvy types to think that, once someone tells them how to use a magical computer program, they’ll be able to finish their work.

The flaw here is, well, if you don’t have enough data (i.e. more than a few thousand data-points or observations), then no computer program will help you find any worthwhile insight. But what’s more of a tragedy is that, since the datasets involved here are small, these clever people could’ve done their work just fine without waiting for the computerized solution.

So yes, having lots of data can make up for a lack of cleverness, because computers are great at data processing. But if you’re in the opposite situation – a clever person with not a lot of data – don’t overlook your cleverness.

W3rules – a modern HTML and CSS reference

I’m a passable web developer, but one who still needs to constantly Google things like “css box shadow” because I don’t do enough front end design to justify memorizing all of the syntax. Problem is, doing a websearch for HTML/CSS terms returns entire pages of not-quite-up-to-par links to W3schools, a site that has dominated web dev references in search engine results since I first started coding.

Lots of failed attempts have been made to displace w3schools. So I won’t aspire to that. I just want a site, even if I’m the only user, where I can refresh my aging mind on the vagaries of CSS syntax.

I call it: W3Rules. Here’s a sample page for font-family. This will be a good chance to get more familiar with Middleman, which looks very fun to use.

Lonnie Johnson, the Millionaire Super-Soaker-Inventing Rocket Scientist Who is Trying to Save the World

This recent headline caught my eye (which reflexively winced from painful memories of point-blank encounters):

Super Soaker creator awarded $72.9M from Hasbro.

Not just because it involved one of my favorite pre-video-game toys, or because of the money involved. But that there was a creator behind the Super Soaker, a single person who had a passion to make industrial-powered squirt guns. The Super Soaker was great, but I just figured it was the product of committee, the natural evolution of toy guns trying to emulate the power of real ones. And as a kid, you don’t think of toys being actual engineering achievements.

But the story behind the Super Soaker is even more interesting than the millions it earned Lonnie Johnson, a former NASA rocket scientist. For one, Johnson stumbled upon the idea at a time when his day job was building a nuclear power source for the Galileo spacecraft. And in this particular Eureka moment, he wasn’t at his day job, but at home in the bathroom, trying to come up with a new kind of refrigerator cooling system that would save the ozone layer.

From this fantastic New York Times profile in 2001:

On his day job in 1982, Lonnie G. Johnson, a 32-year-old aerospace engineer, was preparing an interplanetary spacecraft for its atomic battery. But he dreamed of inventing something that would change life on earth.

He often worked at home as his wife and children slept. One weekend, while tinkering in his bathroom, Mr. Johnson hooked up to the sink a prototype cooling device.

Meant to run on water, it bore at one end a length of vinyl tubing and a homemade metal nozzle. The rest, as they say, is history.

”I turned and shot into the bathtub,” he recalled. The blast was so powerful that the whoosh of accompanying air set the bathroom curtains flying. ”I said to myself, ‘Jeez, this would make a great water gun.’ ”

Mr. Johnson is the inventor of the Super Soaker, what industry experts call the world’s most powerful and popular squirt gun.

Since the Super Soaker’s introduction in 1990, it has earned nearly $1 billion in revenue. Johnson was not a poor man before the recent $72.9 million windfall of royalties, one of the rare tireless inventors who reap financial rewards in their own lifetimes. The Super Soaker was just a bullet point in a long list of envy-inspiring achievements. From the AJC:

  • As an Alabama high school senior, Johnson finished building a remote-controlled robot with a reel-to-reel tape player for a brain and jukebox solenoids controlling its pneumatic limbs
  • After graduating from Tuskegee he joined the Air Force and worked at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Sandia
  • Worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Mars Observer project
  • He also helped design the Cassini robot probe that flew 740 million miles to Saturn.

The best part: Johnson hasn’t been satisfied with his fortunes. He continues to work on and create renewable and efficient energy sources, the same thing he was doing decades ago when tinkering around with his bathroom sink.

Read this MIT profile of him in 1998. One thing that sticks out to me about Johnson is that, unlike the archetypal business-minded inventors, real and fictional, who have been lucky to have become rich while they were alive, he seems to have kept a low profile, even as he continues to attempt moon-shot engineering projects (“Super Soaker Inventor Invents New Thermoelectric Generator”). His Wikipedia entry seems far too short for someone best known for the farthest-shooting water gun.

Writing advice from Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, on how to write sentences:

The best teacher I ever had used to say to me, “When you frame a sentence don’t do it as if you were loading a shotgun but as if you were loading a rifle. Don’t fire in such a way and with such a load that while you hit the thing you aim at, you will hit a lot of things in the neighborhood besides; but shoot with a single bullet and hit that one thing alone.”

The studious and correct use of language is an act of precision; it is the process of eliminating suplusage and embodying only those things which are of the substance of the statement itself. It is an attempt always to fire for the one thing.

In the use of language, we ought to be like the Boer in South Africa, who when he goes out intending to bring back one piece of game carries only one bullet.

As printed in the Educator-Journal, Vol. VIII, February 1908.

Innovations in India’s Health Care

After reading this Bloomberg article, Heart Surgery in India for $1,583 Costs $106,385 in U.S., I couldn’t resist thinking about the end of Atul Gawande’s book, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance“…cost comparisons to India inevitably bring up discussions along the lines of, “Well, just how good can their health care be?” Certainly, it’s hard to think of apples to apples metrics that would allow us to compare quality of care between the U.S. and India due to selection bias: patients in India who are able to go through heart surgery (and pay for it) may have a different health profile than the average American who undergoes that treatment.

Still, Gawande’s closing chapter in “Better” argues that even in relatively poor conditions, real, industry-changing innovation can occur due to necessity. In this final chapter, Gawande describes spending time in India as a visiting surgeon to see how innovative medical care was possible in comparatively squalid circumstances. The Nanded hospital he describes below serves 1,400 villages, about 2.3 million people, with just 9 surgeons (Gawande says that’d be comparable to the state of Kansas having 9 surgeons):

Among the many distressing things I saw in Nanded, one was the incredible numbers of patients with perforated ulcers. In my eight years of surgical training, I had seen only one patient with an ulcer so severe that the stomach’s acid had eroded a hole in the intestine. But Nanded is in a part of the country where people eat intensely hot chili peppers, and patients arrived almost nightly with the condition, usually in severe pain and going into shock after the hours of delay involved in traveling from their villages.

The only treatment at that point is surgical. A surgeon must take the patient to the operating room urgently, make a slash down the middle of the abdomen, wash out all the bilious and infected fluid, find the hole in the duodenum, and repair it. This is a big and traumatic operation, and often these patients were in no condition to survive it. So Motewar did a remarkable thing. He invented a new operation: a laparoscopic repair of the ulcerous perforation, using quarter-inch incisions and taking an average of forty-five minutes.

When I later told colleagues at home about the operation, they were incredulous. It did not seem possible. Motewar, however, had mulled over the ulcer problem off and on for years and became convinced he could devise a better treatment. His department was able to obtain some older laparoscopic equipment inexpensively. An assistant was made personally responsible for keeping it clean and in working order. And over time, Motewar carefully worked out his technique.

I saw him do the operation, and it was elegant and swift. He even did a randomized trial, which he presented at a conference and which revealed the operation to have fewer complications and a far more rapid recovery than the standard procedure. In that remote, dust-covered town in Maharashtra, Motewar and his colleagues had become among the most proficient ulcer surgeons in the world.

BTW, I whole-heartedly recommend Gawande’s “Better”, written in 2008. It extends upon his previous work, Checklist Manifesto, which was best known in its New Yorker incarnation.

Waiting in line for the MoMA’s Rain Room: Some datapoints and pointers

Update (7/24/2013) – Confirmed: you will likely never get to see the Rain Room in New York if you haven’t seen it yet. See the table below to see the latest wait times.

Summary I saw the rain room MoMA exhibit. If you are thinking of visiting it, too, be prepared for a long wait, even as a member. Jump to my compiled historical list of approximate wait times.

I finally saw the much-talked about Rain Room – by the art + design + engineering group, rAndom International – at the MoMA this Saturday, and all it took was waking up at around 5:30AM on a Saturday to get in the members-only line at 6:30AM, which is 3 hours before the “members only preview” actually opens. I was first in line, and about 15 minutes later, a couple joined me. They were members too, despite only visiting New York for the weekend, because they had bought memberships just to see the Rain Room. In addition, they also had the (correct) foresight to arrive extremely early, because (non-bribery) money alone was not enough to guarantee a reasonable wait, as the line grew pretty quickly even at 7AM.

If you don’t care for my admittedly lame anecdotal experience, here’s a crowdsourced table of wait times, by date, day of the week, and membership type, according to the MoMA’s Twitter account, a Twitter search for “#rainroom hours”, and other bloggers.

Wait in hoursDateDayArrival timeLine type
9July 23Tuesday9:10AMMembers
(Capacity reached)July 22Monday2:30PMBoth
(Capacity reached)July 14Sunday9:00AMBoth
4.5July 12Friday2:00PMMembers
6.5July 12Friday2:00PMNon-Members
1.75July 8Monday9:30amMembers
4.5July 7Sunday9:24amMembers
7.5July 7Sunday9:24amNon-members
3July 6 (me)Saturday6:30amMembers
7July 5Friday10:15amNon-members
4July 5Friday8:30amMembers
6June 29Saturday11:39amNon-members
4.5June 29Saturday11:39amMembers
7 to 8June 28Friday11:40amNon-members
3.5June 16Sunday1:30pmNon-members
4.5June 14Friday12:31pmNon-members
3.5June 14Friday12:31pmMembers
3June 7Friday8:30amNon-members
5May 22Wednesday10:30amNon-members
3May 20Monday2:16PMNon-members
1May 20Monday2:16PMMembers
6May 18Saturday10:48AMNon-members
4May 18Saturday10:48AMMembers
5May 18Saturday10:30amNon-members
3May ????9:30amNon-members
1.5May 14Tuesday11:38amNon-members
0.5May 14Tuesday11:38amMembers

Was it worth it? Well, if you’ve heard and seen what the exhibit is about, don’t expect to experience many startling epiphanies beyond what you can already anticipate (unless you’ve never been around falling water and/or used an umbrella). One of the reasons why the exhibit has such long lines is that it can only accommodate about 10 people at once. More importantly, by mandate of the artists, rAndom International, every visitor is allowed to stay as long as they want so that they can experience the exhibit on their own terms.

However, the MoMA politely urges you to keep your visit at 10 minutes. That was enough for me, even after building up the assholish-level of self-entitlement that comes naturally with waiting in line on Saturdays. Like I said, the Rain Room is what it’s been advertised as: it’s a big dark room where it rains around but not on you. It’s neat in a way that my terrible writing doesn’t quite fully capture, and its core experience stands on its own without eliciting the sneaking suspicion that it’s one of those high brow performance artworks in which the actual artistic value is in how many people it fooled into standing in line for an otherwise mundane experience. But I think I was able to get the full gist of it after 10 minutes…or maybe I just felt guilty about everyone waiting outside in the hot sun.

If you just want to see the exhibit, that is, to stand in the room and watch the people who’ve waited for hours to walk under the rain, there’s a separate, much faster line (a wait of minutes, not hours) for that. But not being under the rainy section kind of misses the point…

The exhibit closes on July 28, about 3 weeks from now, so I imagine lines are just going to get longer.

Note: For the rest of the summer, the MoMA is open until 8PM on Thursdays and Fridays, which gives you a few more hours of accessible time.

Getting in line

This was the line on 54th street at around 7AM, two hours before the exhibit opens (note: bring something to read):

Waiting for the MoMA's Rain Room

I had tried to see the Rain Room the day before and naively thought that showing up at 8:30am with my membership card (members are allowed in at 9:30; general admission starts at 10:30) would be more than enough preparation. And this was the Fourth of July weekend, when you’d expect most of the MoMA members to have left town, leaving me at the head of the line of non-member tourists. Nope. The members-only line stretched down the block and the wait was at least 4 hours in 90-degree weather. While I was there, I overheard a staff member saying that waiting times had been as long as 9 hours (but I didn’t hear what day or time that was for).

So getting in line at 6:30am on Saturday for a 3-hour wait before the day got hot is actually the sane thing to do.

Other data points

The actual wait time varies by day and time. On July 4, the MoMA tweeted it was 4 hours for members, 5 hours for non-members (just in case you worried you’d miss the fireworks).
Back in June, the MoMA said the line typically reached capacity at 3PM, when the average wait was just 2-3 hours for members. A staff member told me that they’ve now cut the line as early as 1:30PM and that in the Rain Room’s debut in London, the exhibit’s lines would reach capacity even before the exhibit opened.

Update: On July 17, the New York Times noted that on the previous Sunday, the line was shut down at 9 AM (i.e. a half-hour before the exhibit actually opened)

Note: The queues in London were reportedly as long as 12 hours

Blogger Usha Joy wrote about her experience in the general admission line on Saturday, May 18. She said the wait was 5 hours: with just 20 people in front of her in the non-members line, she had to wait two hours to get put into the back of the entrance line, and then from there, 3 more hours to actually enter the exhibit. Now that it’s July, I imagine the time delay is a bit longer.

In late June, the MoMA tweeted that a mistaken blogger had fooled people into thinking that June 28 was the last day, leading to waits of 7 to 8 hours. At that time, the MoMA’s Twitter account also said member waits could be as short as 2 hours, and that Tuesdays were best.

To see a list of dates and purported wait times, here’s a link to the table above.

Line for the MoMA's Rain Room

At about 8:15 they let the line move into the fenced holding area, because it’s already long enough to go down to 6th Avenue (interestingly, the non-members line was still almost empty at this point). If you’re a member bringing in a non-member friend, you can purchase admission tickets for your coattail-riding friend inside the fenced area. Actually, everyone can buy tickets at the tent inside, so maybe you should wait on purchasing tickets until you’ve made it through the gauntlet. According to Usha Joy, the wait inside the fenced area is about 3 hours.

They also sell snow cones, too.

At 9:30, we were let in. Whee. Well, I was the first in line so this is what the Rain Room looks like before anyone else is inside:

MoMA's Rain Room; first one in

Here’s some video I took entering the rainy part of the room. In the last part of it, you can see how the room is divided into the “interactive” area and a viewing/waiting area:

There’s plenty of space for people to move around and have their own little personal un-rained spot:

MoMA's Rain Room

The exhibit has some room on the side for people who just want to view the wet fun:

MoMA's Rain Room

Here’s a short clip of me looking up at the ceiling without water getting all over my camera. You can see where the sprinklers are turned off, presumably because people are right under them.

Unlike some special exhibits, the MoMA encourages you to take photos, so feel free to satisfy your Instagramming needs. It’s mostly safe to take your DSLR camera in. If you stand still, water shouldn’t fall on you, though the exhibit’s sensors may fail to track your movement once in awhile. I got doused but I was able to change lenses while standing still.

Posing in the MoMA's Rain Room

MoMA's Rain Room

MoMA's Rain Room

The photos and video above were taken with my DSLR. But you can get decent shots with a camera phone if you expose correctly. This is a photo from what my camera phone:

MoMA's Rain Room

While 10 people get to actually run around in the virtual rain, 20 others are on deck, worrying that the water will run out just before they get their chance to enter.

Waiting for the MoMA's Rain Room

MoMA's Rain Room

So that’s the Rain Room. Pretty novel experience but whether it’s worth the wait is up to you. For me, 3 hours not in 90-degree weather is a decent tradeoff. Nine hours? I’d say, no. The exhibit closes on July 28, so there’s probably going to be a growing rush/panic to see it over the next few weekends.

In summary: prepare to give up a workday or a very early morning to see the Rain Room. Is the Rain Room worth hours of your working/resting life? Is any art worth that? Once you’ve convinced yourself of the affirmative to that perpetual life question, the second question to answer affirmatively is: do I own a lightweight, opaque umbrella?

I initially thought that people who had brought umbrellas while waiting in line for the Rain Room were people who hadn’t read the description of the Rain Room and/or the day’s weather report. But actually, they were smart enough to realize that there’s not much shade on 54th Street. The MoMA does have a few spare umbrellas for those near the front of the line…but don’t go without your own. It’s a long time to stand outside, rain or shine.

Line for the MoMA's Rain Room

Waking up at the crack of dawn seems excessive, but 3 to 4 hours of when you can just sit/nap in one spot seems way more preferable to standing around in midday heat, waiting for the line to crawl forward. Because the exhibit area is so small, even just a few people can make a big difference in wait. Think about it: 10 people at a time means that only about 60 go through in an hour, and that’s only if they all abide by the MoMA’s courtesy rule of a 10 minute visit (are people more likely to overstay their time in the Rain Room the longer they had to wait in line?…) Hopefully the MoMA does something like the Met did with the Alexander McQueen exhibit in 2011 and extends the hours and/or exhibition period.

And there’s the issue of price. Standard entry to the MoMA is $25. I guess if you get into the Rain Room early enough that you can enjoy a few hours at the museum, it’s worth the money. Let’s say your life’s goal was to see the Rain Room, then even a membership just to see it may be rational: If the average difference in wait between members and non-members is 3 hours, then ($85 – $25) / 3 is “only” $20 per miserable hour of waiting.

While I couldn’t justify paying a one-time cost of $25 and waiting for 5+ hours for just about anything, including the Rain Room, I’ve been a member at the MoMA for awhile. And at the risk of sounding like a shill for them, the membership is a decent deal if you live in the city. The MoMA lacks a pay-whatever-you-want policy (as at the Met), so the membership is worth it if you have frequent visitors, because guests of members get in for $5 apiece (i.e. befriend a member before seeing the Rain Room). I’ve even paid for the Film membership for the special movie events at the MoMA’s theater, the best of which by far was the premiere of Jackass 3D, with Johnny Knoxville and his co-stars onstage afterwards to discuss the artistic impact of being hit in the balls while hitting each other in the balls with their microphones. If I’ve made the Rain Room out to be anti-climatic, it’s only relative to the unrealistic heights of cultural sophistication to which I have been acclimated.

Some more helpful reading material about the Rain Room from The Smithsonian, The Australian Design Review and Gizmodo.

The New York Times called the Rain Room “little more than a gimmicky diversion” and followed up with an article about the exhibit’s popularity.

(You can see all my photos at my Flickr account)

Engineering and A-holes

I’ve been a huge fan of pop science author Mary Roach’s work ever since “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers“, her entertaining book on how we use and dispose of corpses. Her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (non-affilate link here), is a similar quirky but informative work that focuses on the human digestive system, from the point at which food lands on your tongue to the long trip it takes to the toilet.

Her inspiration for this topic? The “gross” process of digestion has, in Roach’s opinion, relegated it to obscurity:

Feeding, and even more so its unsavory correlates, are as much taboos as mating and death. The taboos have worked in my favor. The alimentary recesses hide a lode of unusual stories, mostly unmined. Authors have profiled the brain, the heart, the eyes, the skin, the penis and the female geography, even the hair, but never the gut. The pie hole and the feed chute are mine. Like a bite of something yummy, you will begin at one end and make your way to the other.

The book appeals to a broad audience, but I think the engineer in me especially appreciates Roach’s curiosity. Eating…and everything that happens after it…is such a routine, mundane, yet hidden and essential process that we don’t perceive it as being complex or interesting, just as we generally ignore the amazingly complex sewage systems that make our cities livable. The best engineered works almost always involve details and logistics we don’t care to think about.

An example from Roach’s book: the flammability of farts. Though great material for YouTube today, this was apparently a serious concern in space exploration. In NASA’s early days, Roach writes, they were so worried about the build-up of human gas in the sealed space capsules that it was suggested that astronauts should be selected only from “that part of our population producing little or no methane or hydrogen.”

Roach’s book covers more than the waste-part of human eating, but I think her most memorable passages come at the end. First, here’s an engineering joke that seems to be told to every incoming freshman engineering class:

An electrical, a mechanical and a civil engineer all sat down one day to try and decide of which of their faculties god must be to design the human body.

The electrical engineer says god must be an electrical engineer, for you only have to look at the complex nervous system powered be electrical impulses.

The mechanical engineer was sure that god must be a mechanical engineer, for the advanced mechanical systems, the heart a pump, the veins pipes and the tendons and muscles an advanced pulley system.

Finally after hearing the civil engineers arguments, both the mechanical and electrical engineer both agreed that god must be a civil engineer, for who else would run a sewer system through a recreational area!

The joke is meant at the expense civy engineer’s lack of aesthetics, but author Mary Roach presents an amusing rebuttal, of sorts; it’s not careless planning, but a bonafide miracle of engineering:

Any discussion of the sexuality of the digestive tract must inevitably touch on the anus. Anal tissue is among the most densely enervated on the human body. It has to be. It requires a lot of information to do its job. The anus has to be able to tell what’s knocking at its door: Is it solid, liquid, or gas? And then selectively release either all of it or one part of it. The consequences of a misread are dire. As Mike Jones put it, “You don’t want to choose poorly.”

People who understand anatomy are often cowed by the feats of the lowly anus. “Think of it,” said Robert Rosenbluth, a physician whose acquaintance I made at the start of this book. “No engineer could design something as multifunctional and fine-tuned as an anus.”

“To call someone an asshole is really bragging him up.”

-via Roach, Mary: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (pp. 216-217). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Writing advice: Keep the bear, and just the bear

John McPhee has been writing for about 50 years now, which, even if you ignore his four Pulitzer finalist awards (and one win), is a good deal of writing experience. But getting past writer’s block hasn’t gotten any easier for him.

McPhee wrote about overcoming writer’s block in the Apr. 29, 2013 New Yorker: “Draft No. 4; Replacing the words in boxes”. The full article is behind a paywall, but the excerpted opening includes a great bit of advice for a former student named “Joel”:

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day…

You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do?

You write, “Dear Mother.” And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can.

And then you go back and delete the “Dear Mother” and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

The rest of the McPhee’s piece is a mine of writing wisdom. He goes on at length about how you must just write anything: “The way to do a piece of writing is three of four times over, never once,” McPhee advises another student. “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft…Until it exists, writing has not really begun”

And a truism worth mentioning, and something that I’ve found applies equally to photography and programming: “The difference between a common writer and an improvisor on a stage is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision.”

McPhee’s piece reminded me of writing advice from C.S. Lewis to a young fan. Each point in Lewis’s list is excellent advice, but this is my favorite:

In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

I’ve seen it with non-professional writers including myself: going on a thesaurus hunt for an adjective to fill space when nothing would do just fine. What makes this particularly pernicious is that you never realize how much time you’re wasting on synonyms and, to top it off, the synonym will end up polluting your writing.

I imagine McPhee agrees. In his “bear” example, he doesn’t use a single adjective to describe the bear. He just lists its concrete dimensions.

First drafts, not coincidentally, come a lot faster when you skip the adjectives.

The Great Gatsby in 3D at the MoMA

Last night I went to the MoMA’s screening of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” . Following the story’s theme of spectacle, it was appropriate that way too many people showed up (it was Film members only) and had to be turned away. I heard a man muttering to his wife, “Someone should be fired for this!” and I had to initially sit on the floor in the overbooked theater.

Today the MoMA’s membership director sent out an apologetic email:

I was dismayed to learn that last night’s MoMA Film Plus screening of The Great Gatsby was overbooked, and that as a result, a number of our Film Plus members were unable to see the film. It is extremely important to me – and to all of us at MoMA – that members have the best possible experience with the Museum. I am deeply sorry for the inconvenience and frustration this must have caused. Please let us know by reply email if you were one of the members shut out of the screening. I would very much like to apologize directly to those who were affected.

I have to admit, if the promise was: “Please email me and we’ll invite you to a second screening of the movie”, I might have lied to see the movie again…it was pretty good, even from the very back rows. Definitely the most appropriate use of 3D I’ve seen yet, and that includes Avatar, but only because Avatar was a terrible movie. Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” had the advantage of Fitzgereald’s story and after watching his vision, it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well (especially when you consider how awful the Robert Redford version was). Even if you don’t like Luhrmann’s over-the-top style, there’s really no better way to do “Gatsby” than being completely over-the-top. And the 3D just complemented the theme of excessive indulgent bullshit, rather than just being a movie-going gimmick.

The movie’s first half was great, the second half couldn’t keep the pace. And disappointingly, some of the memorable character details that I’ve always liked in “Gatsby” — such as Jordan being a total sneak, her relationship with Nick, and Meyer Wolfsheim’s last scene with nick — weren’t in the movie.

Whatever the movie’s faults, what Luhrmann cemented for me is the timeless quality of “The Great Gatsby.” It helps that the story takes place during the “Jazz Age,” one the most progressive and interracially-related period before the Civil Rights Movement. But during the whole movie, I kept thinking how virtually nothing in the depiction of decadent life is alien to what we think of today, and in the movie, the use of Jay-Z and Beyonce in the soundtrack is much less anachronistic than you might think. In fact, the only think that reminded me that “Gatsby” takes place in the past is that none of Gatsby’s party goers were Instagramming/twittering the entire time.

I was surprised when Louis C.K. listed “The Great Gatsby” as his favorite book when the Times interviewed him last month (Louis mocked the fact that the 3D movie was being produced)…It’s my favorite book, too, but I only thought that because I was a high school book nerd. After seeing Luhrmann’s interpretation, I think it’s fair to say that “The Great Gatsby” is a story just as universal as any of Shakespeare’s works. Luhrmann’s version could’ve been better, but the spectacle is worth watching. And it’s hard to beat the “The Wire’s” depiction of “Gatsby” (I think it was a poor choice for Luhrmann not to include the book scene in his movie):