Universal sign language

“Decide” is what is known as a telic verb—that is, it represents an action with a definite end. By contrast, atelic verbs such as “negotiate” or “think” denote actions of indefinite duration. The distinction is an important one for philosophers and linguists. The divide between event and process, between the actual and the potential, harks back to the kinesis and energeia of Aristotle’s metaphysics.
One question is whether the ability to distinguish them is hard-wired into the human brain. Academics such as Noam Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believe that humans are born with a linguistic framework onto which a mother tongue is built. Elizabeth Spelke, a psychologist up the road at Harvard, has gone further, arguing that humans inherently have a broader “core knowledge” made up of various cognitive and computational capabilities. 
In 2003 Ronnie Wilbur, of Purdue University, in Indiana, noticed that the signs for telic verbs in American Sign Language tended to employ sharp decelerations or changes in hand shape at some invisible boundary, while signs for atelic words often involved repetitive motions and an absence of such a boundary. Dr Wilbur believes that sign languages make grammatical that which is available from the physics and geometry of the world. “Those are your resources to make a language,” she says. As such, she went on to suggest that the pattern could probably be found in other sign languages as well.
Work by Brent Strickland, of the Jean Nicod Institute, in France, and his colleagues, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, now suggests that it is. Dr Strickland has gone some way to showing that signs arise from a kind of universal visual grammar that signers are working to.

Fascinating. Humans associate language with intelligence to such a strong degree, I predict the critical moment in animal rights will come when a chimp or other monkey takes the stand in an animal testing court case and uses sign language to give testimony on their own behalf.

Reading the test methodology employed in the piece, I wonder if any designers out there have done any similar studies with gestures or icons. I'm not arguing a Chomskyist position here; I doubt humans are born with some basic touchscreen gestures or base icon key in their brain's config file. This is more about second-order or learned intuition.

Or perhaps we'll achieve great voice or 3D gesture interfaces (e.g. Microsoft Kinect) before we ever settle on any standards around gestures on flat touchscreens. If you believe, like Chomsky, that humans have some language skills (both verbal and gestural) hard-wired in the brain at birth, the most human (humane? humanist?) of interfaces would be one that doesn't involve any abstractions on touchscreens but instead rely on the software we're born with.

Data mining algorithms in plain English

Maybe not interesting if you're a data mining guru, but this explanation of the top 10 most influential data mining algorithms in plain English is a good read for the rest of us, though “plain English” is perhaps debatable.

Here's a good one, on k-means:

You might be wondering:
Given this set of vectors, how do we cluster together patients that have similar age, pulse, blood pressure, etc?
Want to know the best part?
You tell k-means how many clusters you want. K-means takes care of the rest.
How does k-means take care of the rest? k-means has lots of variations to optimize for certain types of data.
At a high level, they all do something like this:
  1. k-means picks points in multi-dimensional space to represent each of the k clusters. These are called centroids.
  2. Every patient will be closest to 1 of these k centroids. They hopefully won’t all be closest to the same one, so they’ll form a cluster around their nearest centroid.
  3. What we have are k clusters, and each patient is now a member of a cluster.
  4. k-means then finds the center for each of the k clusters based on its cluster members (yep, using the patient vectors!).
  5. This center becomes the new centroid for the cluster.
  6. Since the centroid is in a different place now, patients might now be closer to other centroids. In other words, they may change cluster membership.
  7. Steps 2-6 are repeated until the centroids no longer change, and the cluster memberships stabilize. This is called convergence.

This seems like a great idea for a book: the central data algorithms of the third industrial revolution, this networked, online age. One chapter per algorithm, with a discussion of how it manifests itself on the key websites, applications, hardware, and other services we use all the time now. If you are a data mining expert in need of someone to be the “plain English” side of a writing team, call me maybe.

The new coastal culture wars

At Amazon.com, all the irritation and wasted time of a shopping expedition are gone—the search for a parking place, the surly floor clerk, the sold-out items, the perversely slow person ahead of you at checkout. You don’t have to think about how much the cashier, with her wrist in a splint, makes per hour. The Internet’s invisibility shields Amazon from some of the criticism directed at its archrival Walmart, with its all-too-human superstores. Online commerce allows even conscientious consumers to forget that other people are involved.

Emphasis mine, in this passage from George Packer's article on Amazon vs the book publishing industry, from the February 17, 2014 issue. The piece was titled “Cheap Words” and the subhead read “Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” 

Granted, it's tough to represent the pro-Amazon position when so few people will speak on the record or comment on the piece, but I will say I've read enough pieces on the tech industry from what you might call East Coast institutions to detect some coastal cultural bias in each direction. It's not surprising when software is eating the world and cultural influence shifts towards the West Coast for the liberal elite of, say, Manhattan, to turn a nose up at the hoodie-wearing, ping-pong playing, nouveau riche of Silicon Valley.

Packer has written a lot about Amazon in its ongoing battle with publishers, but he's not the only writer I've detected some of this tone in. His example stood out to me, however, because of the New Yorker's typically neutral tone. Here's a straw man of a cashier, or straw woman, as it were, and her wrist is in a splint. Why not just end her arm at the elbow, in a stub, like Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa?

Silicon Valley has enough real problems (Amazon included) that need addressing that shouldn't be obscured by conjuring false bogeymen. That so many have cast book publishers as some sympathetic white hat in this story is one of the more absurd developments in recent media history.

Slow innovation

But this system leaves a category of innovation stranded: new ideas based on new science. Self-fertilizing plants. Bacteria that can synthesize biofuels. Safe nuclear energy technology. Affordable desalination at scale. It takes time for new-science technologies to make the journey from lab to market, often including time to invent new manufacturing processes. It may take 10 years, which is longer than most venture capitalists can wait. The result? As a nation, we leave a lot of innovation ketchup in the bottle.
This is a relatively new situation. From the 1960s through the early 1990s, society’s investments in education and research produced smart people and brilliant ideas, and then big companies with big internal R&D operations would hire those people, develop those ideas and deliver them to the marketplace. When I joined MIT’s electrical engineering faculty in 1980, that model was working extremely well, translating discoveries from university labs across the country into innovations such as silicon-on-insulator technology (IBM) and strained silicon (Intel) — two advances indispensable to delivering on the promise of Moore’s Law , which since the ’60s has enabled the rapid advance of computing power. 
In the past two decades, and especially the past five years, the United States has undergone a profound shift in how it develops, adopts and capitalizes on innovation. Today, our highly optimized, venture-capital-driven innovation system is simply not structured to support complex, slower-growing concepts that could end up being hugely significant — the kind that might lead to disruptive solutions to existential challenges in sustainable energy, water and food security, and health.

From a call for the U.S. to come up with more ways to incubate and invest in slower forms of innovation, the types based on new science, which typically have longer gestation periods from conception to payoff.

A lot of green tech seems to fall into this category, requiring tons of capital and decade long time horizons, something most VC's aren't set up to handle.

Bitcoin feels a bit like something one could lump into this slow innovation category, minus the massive capital requirements of most green tech, though perhaps it's less because of scientific uncertainty and more on cultural and social inertia.


Spike Lee is working on a movie about the violence on the South Side of Chicago, and many in my hometown aren't happy with the working title Chiraq, a mash-up of Chicago and Iraq. Supposedly Rahm Emanuel met with Lee to express his disapproval, but so far Lee is standing by it.

No details about the film, which may be a musical comedy based off of the Greek comedy “Lysistrata” but will not feature Kanye, were disclosed Thursday, but Lee reiterated the importance of it given a recent spate of shootings across the Chicago area, notably in the Englewood area.

Maybe a musical comedy based off Lysistrata? Hmm.

Wisdom of the Kickstarter crowd?

I didn't realize this, but “Kickstarter now raises more money for artistic projects each year than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).” In light of that, an HBS professor decided to study whether the NEA and people on Kickstarter differ in how they select which projects to fund.

"First, it's important to consider that there's a bit of an art to raising money from the crowd," Nanda says. "Sometimes the judges liked projects for which the artists hadn't quite figured that part out. That said, most of the disagreements were on projects that the crowd liked but that the judges would potentially have given less money to or not have funded at all. Those particular crowd favorites showed more variance. They were more likely to be breakout hits, but also included one flop that judges might potentially have been able to stop." 
The crowd aggregation allowed the funding of many projects that were slightly outside the purview of what judges focused on, suggesting that Kickstarter's democratization enables a greater breadth of artistic production, says Nanda. At the same time, the study recognized that Kickstarter supporters weren't always applying the same kind of discipline and rigor in their analysis of projects. They simply liked a project and supported it, or didn't. 
"Overall, the general sense is that the projects that found success on Kickstarter were by no means crazy," Nanda says. "Quite the opposite. The average size of the project in our sample was similar to the average size of a project funded by the NEA. And yet, you can imagine that the kinds of projects people put on Kickstarter and the kind they submit to the NEA are quite different in composition and style, which is why we can't definitively say whether crowdfunding is a substitute to grant-making bodies such as the NEA."

The one advantage of Kickstarter over a grant from the NEA is that your supporters on Kickstarter effectively become your first audience. That is, given a fixed amount of funding, I'd hypothesize that getting that amount in small doses from lots of people is more optimal than getting all of it from one entity or person. It's a healthier, lower risk distribution of funds.

Longer term, the rise of crowdfunding is part of what I consider a healthy trend towards disintermediation in the arts, putting more of the tools of fundraising, production, distribution, marketing, etc., directly in artists' hands. Kickstarter doesn't just enable artists to raise money, it gives them a direct line to many of their fans, one they can turn to even after the project is complete.

The Assassin

I do not always have Cannes Film Festival envy, but this year I do, in spades, because Hou Hsiao-Hsien, one of my favorite directors, just premiered his new movie The Assassin there. It stars his long time muse Shu Qi. I will see anything he does.

David Bordwell got an opportunity to visit the set two years ago.

Years ago Hou said in an interview that perhaps he is too meticulous when it comes to mise-en-scène. This clearly has not changed. On the first day the camera was not yet on the set. Overheard snippets of Hou’s extended discussions with Huang Wen-ying, Mark Lee and others, gave the impression initially that he was going to shoot an interior scene one way, then another, only by the end of the evening to lead me to believe it had changed once again. Then on the second day, the first day of actual shooting, I returned in the morning to discover that the scene was covered from yet another angle.
Throughout that morning, that single setup underwent three more metamorphoses. Hou and his colleagues tinkered with the set and props so extensively that they broke for lunch before actually shooting — this despite the actors all being on call since around 6:30 am. Not bounded by the union rules typical on a Hollywood set, Hou at times was directly involved in adjusting several minute details. Hou is as meticulous as ever.
Hou never uses storyboards or shot lists. He does not even write out dialogue beforehand for the actors. His scenes have always grown out of the specifics of a setting—usually real locations that spark his imaginative staging and lighting. His modus operandi is to then respond directly to the atmosphere he finds himself in, no matter how long that takes. Everybody who works for him seems to understand this.

No dialogue, no script, no shot list. Process-wise, he sounds just like another of my favorite directors, and one he's often grouped with, Wong Kar Wai. Their movies have many similarities, chief among them the ability to capture a mood, a sensation, the feel of a story more than the structure of it.

Is the process integral to producing that type of movie? Does agile development lead to a different type of product than, say, waterfall development? It seems obvious that it would, but the Bordwell piece is worth reading to understand the mechanics of just how.

I really hope this movie comes to TIFF this fall. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a Taiwanese treasure.

Last of the monoculture

Grandiose as it sounds, watching Letterman pace the stage, charisma still radiating, I couldn’t help thinking that this guy represents the last vestiges of the monoculture. The fortress of macro-entertainment has crumbled. The new late-night shows have no prayer of reaching all of America, all at once. They can’t rely on a docile audience that will patiently sit through the second celebrity guest and into the loopy, end-of-hour conversation with Fran Lebowitz, or the time-filling, willfully bizarre skit with Chris Elliot.
You can see it in the way the other hosts plod wearily through their audience interactions, passing time until the cameras roll again: They barely knew we were there. These shows are designed to chase likes and shares, to be easily chopped up into discrete grabs for elusive virality. There’s no need to put on a really big show in a really big theater when your end goal is a 30-second clip that will play in a tiny frame on someone’s Facebook feed. The studio audience is a vestige, too. But at Letterman, at least for one more week, a live taping still feels magical.

Seth Stevenson writes about his experience attending live tapings of all the late night talk shows.

I don't know that we've seen the last of monoculture monoliths, but the bar is set much higher now, as it is for all our cultural products. Watching these late night talk shows at all, let alone watching live, just doesn't exceed the bar of cultural touchstone (and by the way, no one except the studio audience watched these episodes live, they're always taped earlier that day, many hours before they air on television). The ratings reflect that.

I grew up with Letterman, though I rarely got to watch his show when it aired. It always came on after my parents made me go to bed. I've seen enough of his show across the years to feel his sensibility as a familiar one, though. His was the first show that had such a wry sensibility about the whole show business affair, that didn't seem overly impressed with itself for being on television. That such an approach to comedy is so widespread now is just one of the challenges for late night talk shows like Letterman's, but he was the pioneer.

He was also as comfortable in his own skin as any TV personality I've seen. It translated into an on screen confidence and honesty that separated him profoundly from someone like, say, Jay Leno, who has always had the air of a rehearsed performer seeking audience approval and laughter. Letterman was so honest it was evident when he had no interest in one of his guests or conversely when he had a real flirtatious chemistry with a female guest. You knew when he was upset, just as it was clear as soon as he ambled on stage whether he was feeling particularly chipper that night.

Someone that honest and that you encounter regularly across so many decades...well, they feel like a friend. Or a family member. So in two hours, I'm going to tune in to say my goodbye.