The Casual Blog

Tag: technology

Art, technology, and our bedroom v. 2.0

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I saw a story this week about the predictions of various tech company execs as to developments in 2013. The most interesting one to me was that 2013 would be the year of art. The prediction was that the coming year should bring a shift in which technology begins to enable a new creativity.

It struck me as unlikely that we’d see such a major cultural shift this year, but I liked the idea of focusing on how technology might advance creativity. Clearly, it sometimes does the opposite. Television, for example, has on balance surely made us duller, and I worry that Facebook may be no better. But the internet opens a vast number of possibilities, and the tools and portals keep improving.

A case in point: one of my 2012 projects was to learn to draw on my iPad. I found the tools I tried awkward and glitchy. The line would be flowing fine and then for no apparent reason stop working, and need to be reset. Frustrating. I put that endeavor aside for the time being. But the prospect of an amazingly convenient and flexible drawing tool with all the convenience of a tablet is close, if it’s not here already.

As regular readers have heard, I’ve been experimenting with digital photography in recent months. My hope was that with my entry-level DSLR (a Nikon D3200), I might find expressive possibilities that exceeded those of my trusty-but-inflexible Canon point-and-shoot. In any event, getting new equipment tends to inspire new efforts. This is, of course, a slippery slope — it’s possible to shovel a lot of money out the door on fantastic lenses and other equipment without realizing much of an artistic ROI — but so far I’ve kept equipment urges under control, and I’ve made some images I liked.

Lately I’ve been focusing more on what to do with those images Again, technology is expanding the possibilities. I’ve been experimenting with Photoshop Elements to tweak them, and with Flickr and Dropbox for storing and sharing them. Some I’ve shared in this blog. Sally gave me my first digital photo display frame for Christmas, and I set it up with a slide show of my images from our Christmas diving trip to the Turks and Caicos. I’ve been turning it on when I sit down for breakfast, and getting a quick taste of the remarkable beauty of the reefs.

Rita Tiller in bedroom v. 2.0

Rita Tiller in bedroom v. 2.0

Last week I took on a bit of a retro project. In the fall, we engaged Blair Sutton, an interior designer, to help us re-do our bedroom, which had a traditional look that didn’t work with the rest of the space. Blair somehow took our vague concepts and came up with a design that was contemporary but also relaxed and calming. She is truly an artist. One of her ideas concerned the space on the wall over the bed.

She proposed three frames from Pottery Barn hung side by side to be filled with small images of our creation. I’d been thinking for a while about getting some of my own images on our walls, but it never got high enough in the priority queue until Blair’s directive. I took the triptych as a challenge, and though it took a while, it finally got me focussed.

Eventually I picked three images from the Turks and Caicos set (two of which I previously published here) and took them to Rite Aid drugstore to print. (There turned out to be a small learning curve on this. I actually had to take them in twice, because I didn’t get them in an acceptable format the first time.) Anyhow, the prints turned out fine, and Sally volunteered to do the framing. We were both happy with the results, and enjoyed the collaborative process.
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Technology, new art forms, food, and ballet

I’m fortunate to have a ring side seat as information technology is transforming the world, but it doesn’t always look pretty. It makes me wonder, at times, whether, as machines get smarter, humans on average are becoming more and more like the race depicted in the wonderful animated picture Wall-E: fatter, lazier, and dumber. But I haven’t given up all hope, and there are some signs pointing the other direction.

A case in point: this week when my son Gabe (pictured here at Alta last week) sent along his first self-produced short video, which is here. He shot it with a tiny body cam over the course of 3 days skiing in Telluride, CO. The finished product reminded me strongly of some of the beautiful skiing we did together. It’s hard to describe the complex sensations and emotions of skiing far from away from the crowd when its steep and deep, but Gabe managed to convey some of it. The flamenco score heightens the sense of edginess — wild joy with stabs of fear.

Good skiing sometimes seems like art, almost like dance, but the work is seldom shared with other humans by the skier-creator. Until recently, filming the experience was a costly and difficult undertaking. In the past couple of years, though, video cameras have gotten much cheaper as well as tinier, and easier to use, and the software for recording and editing has become highly accessible. The tools for communicating the work instantly and almost cost-free over the internet now exist. The learning curve for use of all this technology is short. And so a new class of artist is being born — the skier-auteur. Technology advances are likewise enabling new types of musical expression, and undoubtedly many other artistic expressions. Perhaps the day will come when everyone will be an artist.

Is food art? I argued about this years ago with my friend Tom, a gourmand who took a strong position that great chefs were artists. Over the years, I’ve moved closer to his position. A great restaurant is a multi-media experience, with sets, lighting, sound, and actors, and also smells and tastes.

Last night Sally and I tried a new Thai restaurant off of Moore Square — Fai Thai. It has replaced the Duck & Dumpling, an Asian fusion spot that was one of our favorites, and that we were sad to see close. The emphasis is less on standard Thai fare than on local ingredients and variety. The decor changes involved colorful parasols and lanterns, which were engaging. The menu had fewer vegetarian options than we hoped, but enough to get started. We found the three dishes we tried each quite different and delicious. The spiciness hit the Goldilocks point — not too much, not too little. Our waiter was friendly and attentive, and the manager took some time to talk to us about the aspirations of the place. He appeared to take on board our suggestions for more attention to vegetarians. Thai food fans should try it.

After dinner, we saw the Carolina Ballet perform Carmen. This is the third time we’ve seen the company do Weiss’s ballet, which is one of our favorites in the repertory. Bizet’s music is unforgettable, and the story is sort of perfect for ballet — love, jealousy, death. For all my admiration of Peggy Severin-Hansen’s great talent, I had my doubts about her as Carmen, who is a sensual, cynical heartbreaker. Peggy’s long suit is purity and innocence — the perfect Firebird. Her Carmen was sweeter than normal, not completely cynical, but this turned out to give the tragedy a new bit of bite — more tragic in a way. Richard Krusch as the Toreador was highly serious, and convincing. He’s a fine dancer who keeps getting better. As always, the story ended with a violent shock, but the production was wonderful.

Our computers, ourselves

More proof that computers and humans are becoming one:  a  NY Times yesterday on the dozens of computers embedded in each of our automobiles. Millions of lines of code accompany us on each on of our daily drives.  In many ways, this is a good thing.  Microprocessors assist with all basic functions of a higher-end car, including unlocking it, accelerating, steering, traction control, and braking, not to mention air bags, climate control, and entertainment.  They improve engine efficiency, warn when tire pressure is low, correct certain driving errors, and generally make sure things are OK.  We hardly notice them, but they’re always there, taking care of us.

The trajectory of this technology seems clear:  the driverless vehicle.  How long until we have them?  We already do.  Last year, in the most recent DARMA competition, cars navigated through an urban environment without realtime human intervention. High end consumer cars now can park themselves.  Indeed, computers already do most of the work flying planes, piloting ships, and directing missiles.  So, how long until we’re required to give up driving our cars and let the much-more-safe-and-reliable computers take over?

This is a somewhat painful question for me, as a person who loves cars, and technology, and also has a soft spot for humans.   I’ll resist giving up (the last part of the) control of my beautiful BMW.  And I have some worries about becoming like the bloated and clumsy humans in Wall-e who had no function other than leisure.  There may be a middle way, though, between a human dominated world and a computer dominated world.

Just now, it feels like we’re an an awkward intermediate stage of evolution in relation to our computers.  A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran a piece noting that email and the internet had become a necessary part of a middle class vacation. I can confirm, as it noted, that in the last five years, checking email and the internet during vacations and weekends has gone from a novelty to a necessity.

When Blackberries first came on the scene a few years back, I initially thought the increasing frequency of people checking their email — whether in exotic locals, local restaurants, elevators, or bathrooms — was mainly a new type of status display.  It seemed to say:   I have new technology and I’m so important many people must get their orders from me, and I cannot pause to pay attention to anyone else or my surroundings.

Old fashioned ego is surely part of it, but I no longer think it’s the largest part.  The technology requires that we work harder.  It has made it possible for more people to contact more people (not to mention that more bots contact more people), creating an escalating flood of information.  This has an overwhelming effect on those who rely for their livelihood on being a bit smarter than others, whether they sell products, provide advice, manage projects, or offer services.  For those people, information is necessary for survival.  The flood of data in their in box may  include something important.  Success depends on knowing more than the competition, and survival depends on not falling behind.  There is no rational choice other than to try to keep up.

So how can we keep from being devoured by our technology?  That is the question.  Yoga?

Do humans really control computers, or vice versa?

Computers are the smartest things in the world, and they are throughly embedded in our lives.  The good news is they do amazing things.  The bad, or at least humbling, news is we will never again be the most powerful intellects on the planet.  For better or worse, computer intelligence is changing what it means to be human.

I was surprised that the NY Times published John Markoff’s piece last week on artificial intelligence under the headline, “Scientists Worry that Computers May Outsmart Man.” In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer beat then-world champion Gary Kasparov.  This was, for me, that was a watershed — strong proof that the era of human intelligence as the dominating force on Earth was drawing to a close.

Today, it’s obvious that computers not only can “outsmart man,” but even in a below average laptop computer is much, much stronger at certain types of information processing than any living human.  We can’t even come close to competing with them, any more than we can fly like falcons, run like cheetahs, or swim like dolphins.

Of course, there are things we can do that they can’t, but the list of those things keeps getting shorter.  Their memories are better, their computational powers are better, and they’re much better spellers.   They aren’t, as of yet, autonomous in the way we like to think human individuals are.  They haven’t indisputably demonstrated independent powers of creativity.  They still rely on us to take care of them (furnishing electricity, temperature control, protection from the elements, etc.).

But the list of ways they take care of us is constantly expanding.  After the recent Air France disaster, I learned for the first time that computers do most of the work flying passenger aircraft.  I’d known about pilots using autopilot, of course, but hadn’t known computers are so much a part of air emergency response systems that human airline pilots’ skills in that area are starting to atrophy.  If computers aren’t in charge already, it’s hard to imagine getting along without them for medical care, financial transactions, telecommunications, electricity, and entertainment.

Markoff wrote in the Times some weeks back about the Singularity — the moment when computers will take over their own engineering, with technology accelerating massively. I don’t seriously think the Singularity has arrived, but if it had, would we be able to see it?

I’m not seriously worried about the sci-fi disaster scenario of computers seizing power from humans and doing them harm.  Why would they do that?  There’s no motive.  Most of the harm humans do to each other stems from human weaknesses and flaws (selfishness, insecurity, chemical imbalances), not from strength and powerful rationality.   Computers aren’t naturally selfish and are not prone to mental illness as we know it.  It’s possible, I suppose, that in a quest to make them more human, we might engineer in some of our weaknesses and desires, but that would be obvious folly.  If it were to happen, it could probably be fixed, like any other bug.

It is hard to say where we stand in the evolutionary process.  I usually think of my computers as just tools for labor or entertainment, and not as anything more than a tools.  Similarly, I usually think of the web as a mere aggregation of computers and the work product of their human users, all amounting to just another tool.

But I can also see the web as a mind, with millions and millions of synapses, of which I am one.  I note that each month it seems more difficult and uncomfortable to separate myself for any length of time from the web, and sweeter to return to it.  I occasionally worry that this is bad for my brain, but in whatever case, that brain is in the process of change.  Something bigger seems to be happening.  This is a speculative question, but not, I think, a crazy one:  Are human brains becoming adjuncts to a different kind of mind?