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Talk 2010

 

December 11, 2010

What’s important

I don’t do nothing very much anymore, because I have too many things to do. It’s a shame, because I enjoy, sometimes, doing nothing.

“My favorite place is my farm in the southern part of Sweden. It is my platform for meditation. I have been renovating a boat in the barn for 20 years, and that boat will never be ready. It’s so dry that if I ever took it on the water it would sink immediately - and I know that - but it’s not important. The importance is the smell, the music I play, and the beer I drink. I can sit there doing nothing. I love it.”
- Anders Färdig, in Dwell magazine, Dec/Jan 2011

 

November 15, 2010

Universals

AKA, more validation, from the November 2010 edition of WIRED magazine:

“Science is the most durable and nondivisive way of thinking about the human circumstance. It transcends cultural, national, and political boundaries. You don’t have American science versus Canadian science versus Japanese science.” - Sam Harris

 

September 22, 2010

Validation

Back in the 90s, when I was getting my M.Ed., I took a class in cross-cultural communication. I felt that much of it was just crap, built on a foundation of cultural relativity - a mindset that I believe is largely divisive, and causes more harm than good. A better way to solve global problems (as well as interpersonal ones) is to look for human universals, those things that we all share.

I tried to express my views to the class. I told them, as I was and still am wont to do, that a good hard look at evolution would provide all of the answers we needed. It’s been gratifying to see the progress made since then in evolutionary psychology, in particular. There is a lot of explanatory power there, in our search for what makes humans - all humans - the same. This is not to neglect the role of culture in shaping us. However, culture has had a lot less time than physical evolution in which to change us. And, lo and behold, culture evolves too. It’s also important to remember that it evolves faster, much faster, than our physical traits. This is most clear when we look at rates of change in our technology, which is inseparable from culture today. So, a good idea might be to try to understand how all these things relate.

It's also probably a good idea to every once in a while check one’s premises. I’m sure that part of why I consider WIRED magazine my bible is that it validates my belief system. I believe in science, and I have faith in technology. Ergo, WIRED is the shiznit. Whatever. It’s good to come across confirmation that there are like-minded people out there. In the current issue (18.10), there’s a nice piece on Where Ideas Come From, in which authors Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson expound on collaborative environments as the real hotbed of creativity - not, as in popular thinking, the lone genius toiling away in the lab or library.

The high point for me, unsurprisingly, was the idea of the “continuity between biological and technological systems.” Kelly continues:

“Both of us have written books on this idea, on the primacy of the evolutionary model for understanding the world. But in What Technology Wants, I’ve actually gone a bit further and come to see technology as an alternative great story, as a different source for understanding where we are in the cosmos. I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives, particularly in a secular world.”

Yes, I know that the secular world that Kelly describes is definitely not a universal. Nevertheless, I would tell my classmates the same thing today. Because those other cultures will evolve. If not, we all know what happens to those (cultures as well as creatures) which do not.

 

August 7, 2010

Impossible

The August 2010 Esquire is the Impossible Issue. They take the same stance that I do: no such thing. Anything is possible. We just have to figure it out.

My position on this begins with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Clarke’s three laws of prediction (Google, friends) are all about what is possible. But it is the third, stated above, that most clearly reflects my own personal philosophy, rooted as it is in evolution. What would people 2,000 years ago have made of airplanes, or rockets? Magic: flight then was impossible. How about people 200 years ago, viewing the use of a modern-day defibrillator? Magic: bringing someone back from the dead. There are thousands of such examples, and kids with cell phones in their backpacks today have no idea what sorts of Harry Potter-esque tricks they are pulling off.

So what do you imagine the world will be like 2000 years from now? How about just 100 years from now? As Ray Kurzweil explains it:

“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”

Get ready for some magic, because anything is possible.

 

June 12, 2010

Commis

Yelp will only allow me 5000 characters for my review of Commis. That’s not enough. So I thought I’d repost here:

No-one else is doing this level of cooking in Oakland. Or San Francisco, as far as I have tasted. You’d have to travel to Yountville to better this food. I have eaten at both the French Laundry and their sister restaurant Per Se in New York, and would agree with those who say that Thomas Keller’s are the best restaurants in the country. But they have veritable armies behind the kitchen doors, whereas Commis is turning out dishes of a very similar level of sophistication with just James Syhabout and two sous-chefs, working front and center, in full view of their customers. Granted, everything here is on a smaller scale: the menu is a 3 course prix fixe selected from among 3 appetizers, 3 main courses, and two desserts, as well as a cheese option. But this means that Commis is a more approachable, affordable dining experience, one where I can see myself returning often.

When we arrived we were warmly greeted and offered the choice of our reserved table or seats at the 6-stool counter overlooking the kitchen. Presumably they were not fully booked, and we were happy to have the opportunity to sit at the counter, which I had understood was reserved for diners opting for an 8-9 course meal, rather than the standard 3 courses offered at the tables. The counter adds a whole new dimension to the experience, enabling you to see just what precision and attention to detail goes into these plates. Syhabout and his team work in near silence, focused entirely on the food they are preparing. This is not like the neighborhood sushi bar, where you chat with the chef, who is drinking beer or sharing sake shots between orders. But the silence of the Commis team is not to be mistaken for an aloof, haughty attitude: they are fully immersed in what they are doing.

The kitchen as centerpiece is only fitting in a room devoid of any extraneous decoration. The walls are bare white, the tables blond wood, the chairs black, the floor tiles grey. All one’s attention is focused on the food. And even if you don’t care about presentation, with every plate wiped twice - once by the kitchen, and again by the server - before it arrives at your table, every tiny edible flower placed perfectly (with tweezers), atop each beautifully sculpted dish, small masterpieces of color, texture, and form, once you place the first bite in your mouth, you will know that you are in good hands here. And yet this is a meal that rewards a diner able to appreciate all of the nuances. I can put it no better than Jonathan Kauffman, in his review in SF Weekly:

“Musicians know that a note is not just a note. The fundamental note they play is bolstered by dozens of other tones that thrum above and below it - octaves, fourths, major thirds - in realms we can’t quite consciously detect. Just listen to the ringing chords of a piano with the sustain pedal held down: The strings seem to multiply as the harmonics quiver into hearing, auditory ghosts manifesting through some rift in space.

James Syhabout, chef of Commis in Oakland, is preternaturally attuned to the harmonics of flavor. He seems to build each dish by tracing all of the fourths and thirds that vibrate around an ingredient, then amplifying those flavors with other ingredients so the rest of us can catch the harmonics, too.”

Our meal began with a glass of sparkling wine from Sonoma and an amuse-bouche of soft-boiled egg yolk served on an onion cream. Hidden underneath are steel cut oats, with tiny chopped dates and chives providing contrasting textures and flavors. The oohing and ahhing commenced. We opted to try two appetizers and then all three entrees before sharing one dessert. Of course we wanted the wine pairings. I nearly always choose this when available - I assume that the chef and his staff know far better than I which wines will pair with the specific ingredients used, and as a bonus I always end up trying wines that I would not think to order myself. An example from this meal was a red from Lebanon, a blend of Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah - a terrific match for my duck.

CM’s appetizer was seared scallops on a warm mousse of white beans, paired with fava beans so young and tender they were served in the shell. Oregano and a raw almond vinaigrette finished the dish. The wine pairing was an excellent rose from pinot noir from Cep. I had a salad of blistered zucchini and asparagus, with sweet basil puree and country ham emulsion. In lesser hands this dish could fall flat on its face; here, it was a revelation. It was served with a lovely viognier. More oohing and ahhing.

For our second course we had grilled monkfish served with cubed yukon gold potatoes, fresh mustard and sliced morels over a tarragon and sherry cream sauce. For some reason I can’t remember the wine pairing here. But the oohing and ahhing continued.

The other two mains on offer were chicken and duck. CM had the chicken, which was a skinless breast poached in a terrine where it takes on a block shape, served on an artichoke soup with peas and lettuces, the crisped skin of the chicken crumbled on top and the jus perfumed with alfalfa hay. The wine for this course was a chenin blanc, though I can't remember where it was from. My duck was roasted breast and leg, served with bulghur with caramelized fennel, honey crisp apricot and a bit of green peppercorn. Paired with it was the Lebanese blend described above. Perfect.

Before dessert, we were served a wonderful little hibiscus and jasmine soda as a palate cleanser.

Then Chocolate Brioche, Lost in the Fire, a chocolate cake with strawberries en rescoldo (cooked in hot ash, very interesting and delicious), with chartreuse chantilly and garden herbs. Ooh, ah.

And finally, two bright green blocks of absinthe gelee arrived with our check.

Michael Bauer (SF Chronicle) finds Commis a bit too precious? No, Coi is precious. Let Bauer stay on his side of the bridge. It’ll leave more open tables for us at Commis. Having Commis in Oakland, now _that_ is precious. This place goes beyond “neighborhood gem” - it’s more like the crown jewels.

 

May 26, 2010

Fulfillment

Remember my post of January 1? Take that, double it, wrap it up and tie a ribbon around it, seal it with a kiss.

 

May 12, 2010

Refinement

Good advice from The Number Mill: “Demonstrate refinement in everything you do.”

 

May 10, 2010

42 percent

Here’s an astounding figure:

“Nearly half of all American college graduates - 42 percent, according to the National Endowment for the Arts - never read another book in their lifetime.” (Source: http://bygonebureau.com/2009/08/14/keywords-the-liberal-arts/)

Can this be possible?! I am dumbfounded by this. Then again, it adds fuel to my argument that most people are stupid. I know that’s not very charitable, but hey, have you driven to San Jose from Oakland on the 880? There should be a minimum IQ test for a driver’s license.

At the same time, I am reading Edward Tufte on the cognitive style of PowerPoint. He describes how Louis Gerstner, upon becoming president of IBM, in an early meeting w/ his executives, turned off a speaker’s overhead projector (the precursor to PowerPoint), and said, “Let’s just talk about your business.”

“Gerstner later asked IBM executives to write out their business strategies in longhand using the presentation methodology of sentences, with subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs, which then combine sequentially to form paragraphs, an analytic tool demonstratively better than slideware bullet lists.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m with Professor Tufte on this one. Reading and writing - these are good things to do, if you also want to think.

 

April 14, 2010

Just the facts, please

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion . . . but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

I watched a terrific video from the TED conference on modern day fear of science. Journalist Michael Specter reminds us that we need to always keep in mind the difference between causation and correlation. It's fine to be skeptical, but when we are presented with proof, it behooves us to accept it, rather than stubbornly insisting that science and technology only bring us more problems. His discussion of the trend toward attacking science ranges from the recent vaccine “scare” to genetically modified foods, with his point being that the critics are settiing up false arguments here. Science is not the villian. What we need to fear and revile are the insane and immoral laws and policies being foisted upon us by big pharma, by Monsanto, by all of the entrenched interests. Science is not the enemy, and is not to be feared. Now more than ever, we need science, technology, and rational thought. Watch his talk here.

 

 

March 28, 2010

Books, paper and digital

I love books. I’ve ripped all my CDs to my computer, and all of my movies (I had around 200 DVDs) as well. But books, books I continue to buy from Amazon, and to line up on the shelves of my several bookcases. I know it’s only a matter of time, but I want to savor them a little bit longer. I will probably get an iPad, and then I’ll have to try one of my magazines that I subscribe to in its new digital incarnation. A book will follow, at some point. I hated the first version of the Kindle. It just wasn’t designed well, and reading on it, while possibly convenient, was not pleasurable. Apple will undoubtedly get the human factors right, and it’s going to be a slippery slope from there . . .

Related:

“The internet did not replace television, which did not replace cinema, which did not replace books. E-books aren’t going to replace books either. E-books are books, merely with a different form.” Read the full article here.

 

March 8, 2010

Oscar-worthy

I was quite pleased with the results of this year’s Academy Awards, in particular the Best Picture award. I know there are many who don’t agree that Sandra Bullock deserved her Oscar for Best Actress. I was reading earlier today the analysis of someone who, like I, thought that most every choice was on target. But among the comments was one who was determined to prove that Meryl Streep deserved the Oscar, with Bullock getting it as the result of some supposed mixture of popular sentiment and a dumbing down of standards. Can you possibly imagine, the commenter says, Sandra Bullock inhabiting the role of Julia Child in the way that Meryl Streep did? Whereas Meryl Streep would have had no problem with Bullock’s Memphis mom. Ergo, Streep deserves the Oscar.

Wait a minute. How would Streep have fared in the the role of Gabourey Sidibe’s Precious? Or in that of Mo’nique's Mary, for that matter? Right. If Streep deserves the Oscar, it’s not because she could or could not have done a better job in Bullock’s role, or vice-versa. It is because she gave the best performance, period. Having not seen either of their films, I’m not going to defend Bullock here.

But I will say this: Go see Precious.

 

February 12, 2010

Cyber Sapiens

One area where I often find myself trying to explain to others who might give me a little bit of their time and patience is the false distinction between the “natural” and the “man-made.” My position, at base, is that because we are a product of evolution by natural selection, nothing we make or do should be considered “unnatural.” This includes such things as genetic engineering. Such things as gasoline-powered engines. If we develop the technology to run our cars by means of algae-fuel, or sunlight - and I hope we do - are those things any more “natural” than oil? The distinction to be made is clean vs. dirty, or safe vs. unsafe, not natural vs. unnatural. And so the list of things that mankind does which are not unnatural is quite long. Chip Walters, in a fine piece on kurzweilai.net, makes this point with a list of his own, including an example he credits to biologist Lynn Margulis:

“Lynn Margulis, probably the world’s leading microbiologist, has argued that this blurring of technology and biology isn’t really all that new. She has observed that the shells of clams and snails are a kind of technology dressed in biological clothing. Is there really that much difference between the vast skyscrapers we build or the malls in which we shop, even the cars we drive around, and the hull of a seed? Seeds and clam shells, which are not alive, hold in them a little bit of water and carbon and DNA, ready to replicate when the time is right, yet we don’t distinguish them from the life they hold. Why should it be any different with office buildings, hospitals and space shuttles?

Put another way, we may make a distinction between living things and the tools those things happen to create, but nature does not. The processes of evolution simply witness new adaptations and preserve those that perform better than others. That would make Homo habilis’s first flint knife a form of biology as sure as a clamshell, one that set our ancestors on a fresh evolutionary path just as if their DNA had been tweaked to create a new, physical mutation, say an opposable thumb or a big toe.

Even if these technological adaptations were outside what we might consider normal biological bounds, the effect was just as profound, and far more rapid. In an evolutionary snap, that first flint knife changed what we ate and how we interacted with the world and one another. It enhanced our chances of survival. It accelerated our brain growth which in turn allowed us to create still more tools which led to yet bigger brains. And on we went, continually and with increasing speed and sophistication, fashioning progressively more complex technologies right up to the genetic techniques that enable us to fiddle with the self-same ribbons of our chromosomes that made the brains that conceived tools in the first place. If this is true, all of our technologies are an extension of us, and each human invention is really another expression of biological evolution.”

But if you are able to wrap your head around this, and accept it - and I think it’s an inevitable conclusion, if you accept Darwin’s basic tenets and follow them to their logical conclusion - then the man-machine meld may not seem so absurd.

“It is strange to think of the invention of machines, even robotic ones, as having anything to do with Darwin’s natural selection. We usually regard evolution as biological–a world of cells, DNA and ‘living’ creatures. And we think of our machines as unalive, unintelligent and shifted by economic forces more than natural ones. But it isn’t written anywhere that evolution has to be constrained by what we traditionally think of as biology. In fact each day the lines between biology and technology, humans and the machines we create are blurring. We are already part and parcel of our technology.”

Remember, homo sapiens branched off from the other great apes about 6 million years ago. Do you think that is the last split? Do you think evolution has stopped? Think again. There is going to be another split. While the other side of that split may not be “human” any longer, I’d rather be a cyborg than a dodo bird. Who’s with me?

To read the entire article, click here.

 

January 28, 2010

Happy

I was reading the Simple Lovely blog today, and noticed in her post from yesterday a list of things which bring her happiness. I was struck by how close this was to a list that I might myself make:

* Cooking a great meal (ideally with a kitchen full of collaborators)
* Riding my bike (simple but immensely pleasurable)
* Listening to music
* Road trips (ideally spontaneous... Bryan always drives and I do tons of reading, which leads me to)
* Reading (I’m never happier than when I’m reading)
* Seeing art
* Spending time with inspiring women (the time at Alt cemented this for me)
* Making things with my hands
* Being fully unplugged...

 

January 10, 2010

Sex vs. Love

“Difference between sex and love? Well, you’re not always sure you’re in love. But when you’re having sex, there’s really no mistaking it.”

- Ornette Coleman

 

January 3, 2010

A Designer’s Designer

I came across a great little piece on J Mays, design head at Ford, in the latest issue of Esquire. As when I watched Objectified, I had that thrill of recognition: Yes, there are others out there who think as I do! A selection:

“Anybody can make a toaster. Very few people can make a toaster something you covet.

If you go into a person’s house and look at his surroundings, you’ll see exactly who he is. If you look at the same person in his car, you’ll see who he wants to be.

People often mistake putting on a crappy suit with a tie for being well dressed. That’s more formal, but it has nothing to do with being stylish.

What does the cutlery look like? What’s the plate look like? How’s the food laid out on the plate? Has the environment been completely thought through? Part of the reason I go to a nice restaurant is to get the entire vibe.”

Exactly!

 

January 1, 2010

The New

Something feels better about this year. I’m feeling pretty positive. True, a job layoff, 8 months of unemployment checks, and a breakup after a year with my girlfriend would seem to make 2009 an easy year to best.

Sure, we’ve just wrapped up the holiday season: I’m coming off of a week’s vacation with my family, sprinkled with assorted champagnes and wines and fantastic meals, and this puts me in a good frame of mind no matter what.

I’m two months into a new job, and have the sense that my work there is well-received, appreciated.

And on the Chinese calendar, we’ve spun around another 12 years to my own, the year of the tiger.

All of these things and more contribute to my anticipation that 2010 will be not only better than 2009, but better by some yet-to-be-determined order of magnitude.

Bring it!

 

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