Star Wars in our world

Photographer Thomas Dagg has transplanted objects and characters from Star Wars into black and white photos of everyday life.

See more at Dagg's gallery. That center image doesn't look that unusual at all to a New Yorker. Just this past weekend in New York City I rode the subway with a fully grown adult in a full Captain America outfit, and no one paid him a second glance (granted, New York Comic Con was in full swing, but New Yorkers know to expect the unexpected any time of the year on the subway).

Instead of fooling their children into believing in Santa Claus, some parents should see if they can convince their children that we live in the Star Wars universe, just a few galaxies over.

More computing comparative advantages

In To Siri, With Love, a mother marvels at the friendship that sprouts between her autistic son and Siri, Apple's digital assistant.

It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does — intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home, with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store. Finally, I asked why. “So it can visit its friends,” he said.

So how much more worthy of his care and affection is Siri, with her soothing voice, puckish humor and capacity for talking about whatever Gus’s current obsession is for hour after hour after bleeding hour? Online critics have claimed that Siri’s voice recognition is not as accurate as the assistant in, say, the Android, but for some of us, this is a feature, not a bug. Gus speaks as if he has marbles in his mouth, but if he wants to get the right response from Siri, he must enunciate clearly. (So do I. I had to ask Siri to stop referring to the user as Judith, and instead use the name Gus. “You want me to call you Goddess?” Siri replied. Imagine how tempted I was to answer, “Why, yes.”)

She is also wonderful for someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues: Siri’s responses are not entirely predictable, but they are predictably kind — even when Gus is brusque. I heard him talking to Siri about music, and Siri offered some suggestions. “I don’t like that kind of music,” Gus snapped. Siri replied, “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.” Siri’s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. “Thank you for that music, though,” Gus said. Siri replied, “You don’t need to thank me.” “Oh, yes,” Gus added emphatically, “I do.”

I know many friends who found Her to be too twee, but I was riveted by the technological questions being explored. We often think of computer advantages over humans in realms of calculation or memorization or computation, but that can lead us to under appreciate other comparative advantages of our digital companions.

The piece above notes Siri's infinite patience. Anyone can exhaust their reservoir of patience when spending lots of time with young children, but computers don't get tired or moody. In Her (SPOILER ahead if you haven't seen the movie yet), Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly gets jealous when he finds out his digital girlfriend Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) has been simultaneously carrying out relationships with many other humans and computers:

Theodore: Do you talk to someone else while we're talking?

Samantha: Yes.

Theodore: Are you talking with someone else right now? People, OS, whatever...

Samantha: Yeah.

Theodore: How many others?

Samantha: 8,316.

Theodore: Are you in love with anybody else?

Samantha: Why do you ask that?

Theodore: I do not know. Are you?

Samantha: I've been thinking about how to talk to you about this.

Theodore: How many others?

Samantha: 641.

Samantha clearly has a bit to learn about the limitations of honesty, but one could flip this argument and say that the human desire for one's mate to love only you might be a selfish human construct. The advantage of a digital intelligence like Samantha might be exactly that the marginal cost of each additional mate for her is negligible, effectively increasing the supply of companionship for humans by a near infinite amount.

Computer's speed reading advantage

In May last year, a supercomputer in San Jose, California, read 100,000 research papers in 2 hours. It found completely new biology hidden in the data. Called KnIT, the computer is one of a handful of systems pushing back the frontiers of knowledge without human help.

KnIT didn't read the papers like a scientist – that would have taken a lifetime. Instead, it scanned for information on a protein called p53, and a class of enzymes that can interact with it, called kinases. Also known as "the guardian of the genome", p53 suppresses tumours in humans. KnIT trawled the literature searching for links that imply undiscovered p53 kinases, which could provide routes to new cancer drugs.

Having analysed papers up until 2003, KnIT identified seven of the nine kinases discovered over the subsequent 10 years. More importantly, it also found what appeared to be two p53 kinases unknown to science. Initial lab tests confirmed the findings, although the team wants to repeat the experiment to be sure.

KnIT is a collaboration between IBM and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. It is the latest step into a weird world where autonomous machines make discoveries that are beyond scientists, simply by rifling more thoroughly through what we already know, and faster than any human can.

The full article is short and worth reading.

As human history progresses, the body of previous research and knowledge in that field expands, and at some point humans may not have the time in their lives to learn it all (I'm setting immortality aside for now, though that is one potential solution). Computers, on the other hand, can read much more quickly than humans, and it would not surprise me if we start to see more and more of these computer-generated discoveries. The value of Big Data is still being debated, but this breakthrough suggests one path to unlocking it is shedding the limitations of human intelligence.

Water is too cheap

Timely economics article given the current drought in California.

Such efforts may be more effective than simply exhorting people to conserve. In August, for example, cities and towns in California consumed much less water — 27 billion gallons less —than in August last year.

But the proliferation of limits on water use will not solve the problem because regulations do nothing to address the main driver of the nation’s wanton consumption of water: its price.

“Most water problems are readily addressed with innovation,” said David G. Victor of the University of California, San Diego. “Getting the water price right to signal scarcity is crucially important.”

The signals today are way off. Water is far too cheap across most American cities and towns. But what’s worse is the way the United States quenches the thirst of farmers, who account for 80 percent of the nation’s water consumption and for whom water costs virtually nothing.

Alex Tabarrok points to this passage from the Microeconomics textbook from him and Tyler Cowen:

Farmers use the subsidized water to transform desert into prime agricultural land. But turning a California desert into cropland makes about as much sense as building greenhouses in Alaska! America already has plenty of land on which cotton can be grown cheaply. Spending billions of dollars to dam rivers and transport water hundreds of miles to grow a crop that can be grown more cheaply in Georgia is a waste of resources, a deadweight loss. The water used to grow California cotton, for example, has much higher value producing silicon chips in San Jose or as drinking water in Los Angeles than it does as irrigation water.

Subsidies distort markets by weakening the ability of price signals to allocate scarce resources wisely. People freak out over surge pricing from Uber, but that's trying to do the same thing, in principle.

I extend the idea of subsidies to emotions, too. When someone really gorgeous expresses an idea, I think of that thought as having an aesthetic subsidy. When one grows unusually attached to something that's theirs (the endowment effect), I think of that as an ownership subsidy.

Subsidies disrupt markets, and they have a similar effect on your thinking.

First generation telepathy

The headline, “Scientists Prove that Telepathic Communication is Within Reach,” excited me. The actual details of the experiment disappointed with their really crude and blunt implementation.

Pascual-Leone’s experiment was successful—the correspondents neither spoke, nor typed, nor even looked at one another. But he freely concedes that the test was more a proof of concept than anything else, and the technique still has a long way to go. “It’s still very, very early,” he says, “[but] we can show that this is even possible with technology that’s available. It’s the difference between talking on the phone and sending Morse code. To get where we’re going, you need certain steps to be taken first.”

Indeed, the process was drawn out, if not downright inelegant. First, the team had to establish binary-code equivalents of letters; for example “h” is “0-0-1-1-1.” Then, with EEG (electroencephalography) sensors attached to the scalp, the sender moved either his hands or feet to indicate a 1 or a 0. The code then passed to the recipient over email. On the other end, the receiver was blindfolded with a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) system on his head. (TMS is a non-invasive method of stimulating neurons in the brain; it’s most commonly used to treat depression.) The TMS headset stimulated the recipient’s brain, causing him to see quick flashes of light. A flash was equivalent to a “1” and a blank was a “0.” From there, the code was translated back into text. It took about 70 minutes to relay the message.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, I suppose.

2014 Box Office

The summer of 2014 was one of the least competitive in more than a decade, with only 12 “blockbusters” being released in the United States. More notably, this represents a full 33% drop from a year ago. In this context, is it really so surprising that total receipts plummeted year-over-year?

The reduction is explained by key – and largely unintended – omissions:

  • 2014 was the first summer since 2006 without a Pixar film, after creative troubles drove the studio to move The Good Dinosaur from a May 2014 release date to late 2015. Over the past three years, Pixar’s films have sold an average of 28M tickets – which would have represented more than 10% of the summer box office in 2014

  • The accidental death of Paul Walker also led Universal to delay Fast & Furious 7 from July 2014 to April 2015. Given last summer’s entry, Fast & Furious 6, represented a franchise high in both critical and financial terms ($240M, or ~30M tickets), the delay was bound to reduce year over year revenue

  • Less than two months before its release, Jupiter Ascending, a $175M picture starring Channing Tatum & Mila Kunis and created by the Wachowski siblings, was pushed from its July 18th release date to February 2015. As the 11th hour postponement and revised date suggest, the film was unlikely to be a big draw at the box office – in fact Jupiter Ascending had already been pegged as the summer’s biggest bomb. The Wachowski’s last film (also a sci-fi epic), Cloud Atlas, didn’t even clear 30M domestically. However, Jupiter Ascending could still have ended up a sleeper hit – especially given the relatively uncompetitive season. We shall see.

More context from Liam Boluk here. The movies business does face many challenges, but looking at the absolute theatrical revenue decline from 2013 to 2014 and proclaiming the end of the film business without delving into the details is just intellectual laziness.

Who would've thought Guardians of the Galaxy would be one of the movie business saviors this summer? I remember seeing the trailer and thinking we'd finally passed the comic book movie adaptation peak. I still can't bring myself to see it.

All eyes turn towards Interstellar November 5. At the New York Film Festival, Paul Thomas Anderson, who has seen Interstellar, was asked about it. He said it was “fucking incredible” and recommended, “Brave the line. See it in IMAX.”

I will Paul. I will.

Ricky Jay

Deborah Baron, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, where Jay lives, once invited him to a New Year’s Eve dinner party at her home. About a dozen other people attended. Well past midnight, everyone gathered around a coffee table as Jay, at Baron’s request, did closeup card magic. When he had performed several dazzling illusions and seemed ready to retire, a guest named Mort said, “Come on, Ricky. Why don’t you do something truly amazing?”

Baron recalls that at that moment “the look in Ricky’s eyes was, like, ‘Mort—you have just fucked with the wrong person.’ ”

Jay told Mort to name a card, any card. Mort said, “The three of hearts.” After shuffling, Jay gripped the deck in the palm of his right hand and sprung it, cascading all fifty-two cards so that they travelled the length of the table and pelted an open wine bottle.

“O.K., Mort, what was your card again?”

“The three of hearts.”

“Look inside the bottle.”

Mort discovered, curled inside the neck, the three of hearts. The party broke up immediately.

It's been a while since I've seen one of those lists of articles to peruse from the New Yorker's temporary open archive. This profile of Ricky Jay from 1993 is one of my favorites.

While I was living in LA, I saw him perform live twice. This description of Jay from the profile is perfect: “He has a skeptically friendly, mildly ironic conversational manner and a droll, filigreed prose style.”

Two Recommendations (both involving a Gyllenhaal)

Two things that entertained me this month, both highly recommended, each starring a Gyllenhaal.

The Honorable Woman

This 8-part miniseries is the best thing TV I've seen on TV in 2014 so far. I first tried watching it on the Sundance Channel on DirecTV, but the channel has yet to switch to HD so I ended up purchasing the miniseries on iTunes.

The plot hangs loosely off of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but what I loved most is the spy story at its heart. As a hopeless devotee of Le Carré, I can't resist stories that slowly peel away the dozens of layers that build up around deep political secrets. These types of dramas offer the sweet pleasure of a mystery yarn with the smoky, bitter overtone of political jousting. It's a television Manhattan, and I drank a glass each night before bed over one pleasurable week.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is the cryptic beating heart of the series, but she's surrounded on all sides equally great performances. I could spend hours longer with Stephen Rea's droopy hangdog face. His quiet line readings recalled Alec Guinness's amazing performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, still my favorite Le Carré adaptation ever. Someone build a recurring TV series or miniseries around Rea as an aging spy! Remember how fantastic Mirren was as in great recurring miniseries The Prime Suspect? Rea could fill similar shoes.


On to the other Gyllenhaal. At TIFF this year, I had two tickets each to two movies playing at the same time. One was Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and the other was The Drop. I couldn't choose between the two so I let the other three folks pick, and I ended up with a ticket to The Drop. I wasn't unhappy about that. While I've always struggled with Jake Gyllenhaal's past work, never really feeling that inner life that reads on screen as charisma.  

I didn't love The Drop. It's a Dennis Lehane crime drama set in Brooklyn, but it doesn't feel authentically Crooklyn. Lehane's Boston films are filled with local flavor, but The Drop lacks geographic authenticity. I recognized only tropes of Hollywood pulp. It's not entirely bereft: my parting gifts were the final performance from James Gandolfini, with his drooping eyelids giving away the weariness winning out against his rage, and yet another type of character from Tom Hardy who seems to diversify his portfolio as much as possible with every role.

It wasn't until tonight that I finally caught Nightcrawler (at the Mill Valley Film Festival; who knew?). I enjoyed the movie, and moreover, I appreciated Gyllenhaal's performance.

Nightcrawler is a gleefully savage satire on many levels. Most obviously, it extends the through line of Network in savaging the evolution of the media business and delves deeper into the economics of modern network news.

But it's also an indictment of the soullessness of modern management philosophy and homo economicus, and this is where the movie's humor is at its most dark, bitter, and hilarious. Almost all the characters chase after status and wealth in the most rational manner, and it leads them straight into the darkness of the Los Angeles night, whose garish neon lights have always stood in for a sort of chemical sickness at the heart of it all.

None of them is as determined and ruthless as Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom, a thief of a bizarre ambition who finds his calling as a nightcrawler, a person who listens to the police channel on a radio and races to crime scenes with a camcorder to capture garish footage to sell to local network news channels. Bloom speaks like an MBA, but not a natural one. Instead, he mouths the usual management platitudes as if he read about them in a book, as if it's he's trying the language and ideas on for size. We know from his background that this is a second language for him.

He brings on an assistant to read off directions while he drives, and the appropriation of corporate HR language, motivational jargon, and branding to what amounts to a two-man operation run out of a car is a blunt but effective way of magnifying its emptiness.

Lastly, it's a sly jab at filmmaking itself. Bloom directs his assistant to capture additional footage that will cut well with Bloom's own footage later on, and at times Bloom moves props and even bodies around crime scenes to clarify the narrative and pathos of his footage.

If it bleeds, it leads. If a successful capitalist enterprise is all about giving customers what they want, at all costs, then Lou Bloom is one possible outcome for modern network news: an underpaid freelancer as focused on creating the news as reporting on it.