Thursday, November 21, 2013

Impressions of NYC, November 2013 (revised)

[revised 11/26/2013]

This was my first trip back to NYC since about 2004 or so. For my benefit more than anything else, these are my notes about what has and has not changed in the city from my lowly point of view.

1. It was shocking to me how quickly my knowledge about how to get around had deteriorated. You forget which streets are one way, you forget which is the uptown/downtown entrance to the subways. You stop at crosswalks instead of blasting right through with an eye on the incoming traffic. I reached for my little fold out map maybe 200 times in 8 days. When I lived there, I never needed a map. You spend a LOT more money on taxi's because at some point you just say, "fuck it, get me there", where a local would just walk or take the subway. I got lost maybe a dozen times and I never used to get lost in Manhattan.

There is obviously some backstory here

2. There continues to be a disturbing trend towards branded nationwide chains in Manhattan.

3. The taxis have done away with the celebrity greetings, which were there to try and make tourists feel better about using taxicabs. I miss hearing Rodney Dangerfield remind me to take my bags as I left. There is in its place a nice GPS map of Manhattan showing you where you are if you knew how to get at it on the touch panel display. Oh Brave New World !

4. Pizza has gone from being $1.50 for a slice of plain to $2.50.

My barber in Little Italy

5. People in NY, or at least my friends in NY, are constantly visiting people, galleries, parties, and/or other social events. Constantly. I know one person in LA who lives that way, but no one else. There are no social events worth speaking of down where I live.

6. The perceived expense of visiting NY is real. NY is much less expensive to live in than to visit assuming you have a reasonable place to live. The money is spent on hotels (or whereever it is you stay), transportation and to some extent on food depending on whether you eat out all the time. Is this worse than other cities? Not really, I think. Maybe hotel rooms are more expensive overall. But taxis are less expensive in NY than in LA, although of course you tend to use them more in NY.

7. Taking a taxi from LAX to Culver City is nearly $40.00 today.

8. More of NY is going upscale, and some of the older neighborhoods are changing. Broome street, where I was staying, is midway in the process of becoming a trendy, soho-like place.

Tom Brigham in front of House of Vegetarian

9. The new "world trade center" is just ok. Its a nice enough building except for the stupid tower on top to try and make it seem taller than it is. It is not the WTC in either scale or impressiveness, but I don't think anyone will really care in a few years. Lets see how they do with the monument. I am not holding my breathe.

10. Little Italy is much reduced. Apparently this happened long ago, when I was still living there, as a way of reducing the influence of certain Sicilian families, they tell me.

11. Chinatown is still there and as weird as ever.

12. But most of all what impressed me is that NYC is drop dead beautiful. The architecture, the lighting, the weather and the people all makes for a dramatic and fascinating place to live.

13.  As always when in NY one should buy a Metrocard, which is a little card which keeps subway and other transit fares, like a phone card.    You can put any amount of money on the card, but when one buys a certain amount you get a decent discount so you should do that.   What the Metrocard does for you is to make any of the mass transit systems in NY easier to use.  No fumbling for money, no exact change, no waiting in line for a ticket.  You just swipe your card through the turnstile and it lets you through and tells you your balance.

On this trip I was staying in a part of town I rarely spent much time in (Broome street near Christie, near Chinatown) and I did not know how it really fit into the subways.   I needed to go to B&H Photo at 34th street and as I was pondering whether I felt like walking 30+ blocks, a 3rd Avenue bus went by.   So I took out my Metrocard and I was on the uptown bus, which stops at 34th street.   Ok, admittedly, I got a little lucky here.  But the idea behind a well-designed and run transit system is that tourists and residents should get lucky now and then.

14.  I always have conversations with my cab drivers.   I dont know why, maybe it puts me at ease, but they are almost always interesting people to talk to, usually recent immigrants (where recent can be as much as 10 years or so).  Usually pretty fluent in English.

15. I found that after a while, I enjoyed staying at Arlene's Home for Wayward Children, where I had a couch and shared the bathroom with six other people.  Everyone was well behaved and easy to get along with, even Arlene when you calmed her down.   I could live there for a while and be perfectly happy.  If only I could afford it.   Not a giant fan of that part of town (Broome and Christie) but there are people who swear by it.  I am more of an upper west side kind of guy, I suppose.

16. Its nice to see a technology community thriving in NYC.  I hope it persists and continues to thrive, it gives me some hope that I would be able to find suitable employment there one day.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Rodents of Unusual Size Found in Ancient Italy

When life imitates art, one must ask how the artists knew what they knew and when they knew it. Did they just make a lucky but inspired guess, or were they diligent enough to research the topic and talk to a specialist and then make a considered and informed extrapolation of what is known into the unknown? (1) Movies about the future and the distant past know in advance that they must make predictions where certain knowledge is missing, but even in these cases the filmmakers shrug off an obligation to make solidly grounded predictions and lapse into the cheap or predictable.

I would say that cheap and predictable is Hollywood's metier.

However it occurred, in the case we have here the filmmakers have unexpectedly triumphed when they probably just thought they were creating an inexpensive but exciting moment in a film that has a certain reputation for being unusually entertaining. I am referring here to the "rodents of unusual size" in the esteemed movie The Princess Bride (1987).

To refresh your memory, the kidnapped princess and the Dread Pirate Roberts, revealed to be her former servant and lover, Wesley, try to escape their pursuers in the Fire Swamp, known to be inhabited by horrible ROUS, which are "rodents of unusual size". Of course they are attacked by ROUSes (ROUSi?) in the swamp and a terrible battle ensues before they are able to defeat the ROUSes and escape the swamp. The ROUSes are not a shining moment in the history of visual effects, being somewhat cheesy and, well, ratty in appearance.

Although filmgoers of today demand the highest quality in visual effects, the best that technology can imagine for their quota of zombies, giant robots, and superheroines, it wasn't always so. Back in the day, long ago, movies were often about telling a story and made economic use of the resources available. The effects only had to be good enough to move the story forward. In some cases, one could even accuse the filmmakers of being tongue-in-cheek cheesy. The gopher in Caddyshack (1980) comes to mind.

So we might dismiss the ROUSes as being merely enlarged and fictional examples of an imaginary rodentia, until science made the following amazing discovery. Apparently, in ancient italy, rodents of unusual size, giant hedgehogs, roamed the countryside, eating and otherwise annoying the other flora and fauna of its time. Although this is probably just a lucky guess on the part of the filmmakers, I think you will agree that it is an amazing resemblance.

It may be a hedgehog but it certainly looks like a rodent to me

Since one of the theme's here at Global Wahrman is to analyze the process by which one can successfully predict the future, we plan to use this example in our case studies of successful, if inadvertent, predictions.

Read more about the Ancient Rodent


1. In this case, I think we can rule out the use of Atlantean Crystal Wisdom. There is no evidence to suggest that any of the filmmakers were aware of and using the Esoteric Knowledge.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

NY Tech Meetup and the Delusion of Optimism

When I was in New York, I had the opportunity to attend the November meeting of the oddly named "New York Tech Meetup" at NYU's Skirball Center. The November meeting is reserved for academic presentations, e.g. presentations of new technology (or old technology) by universities and schools, professors and students. We had 20 presentations and each lasting about 3 minutes long.

High School students frisbee throwing robot that failed to throw frisbees

We had one set of students who had used image understanding software to cheat at completing jigsaw puzzles. Another group of students (high schoolers) had built a robot that threw frisbees. We had a Harvard based group of people who showed their website that allowed programs to be written with a visible programming language from MIT that allowed you to snap pieces of programs together. And we had our own NYU Media Research Lab show the current status of a very inexpensive immersive reality system that used about $500 in parts.

Backstage at Skirball with Ken Perlin and Students getting the immersive reality demo to work

But the audience was the most impressive part.  Maybe 500 to 600 people, all enthusiastic, all well dressed, all maybe 25-45 years old.   All of them ready to do that big tech startup and get rich!

When it was all over, we had a reception hosted by, I think, Google.  On the 10th floor, a view of Manhattan, and filled with enthusiastic people "networking".

So you know me, Mr Reality here.  Mr Sourpuss here.  I go and find the organizers and complement them, but mention one little issue I had:  "It was all so upbeat" I said. "It was all so optimistic"

"Well, whats the matter with that?" they asked.

You do realize that there is 25% unemployment in this country, right? That there are more people on food stamps today than have ever been, and it is not because of some stupid right wing craziness about lazy people. That 9 out of 10 startups fail, right? You know that, right?

They just looked at me in horror and turned away.

Sorry to spoil their party, I guess.

NY Tech Meetup:

This PS may be unnecessary, it may actually be in a comment.  So read the comments!  -- MW

P.S. Ok, the point has been made by one of our NY correspondents that this is a bit too negative.  In fact, even if 9 of 10 fail, the 1 surviving may end up hiring all the others. Also, we should not fail to encourage those who might improve themselves by their own initiative.   OK, sure, I agree with this, but let us not on the other hand have unbounded optimism either.  Many will fail, and failure can be painful and destructive.

Also, I feel rather strongly that if you want to succeed in America, it is helpful to have a lot of money. It is possible to succeed without a lot of money, but it is a lot harder.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

NYC Trip Report November 2013

(draft, photos to follow)

There are about 100 things that occurred during this trip, and it is not clear to me what, if any of them will be of interest to you.

This post gets all the little things out of the way. The more interesting things will be separate posts of their own over the next week.

1. By being absent from NY for several years, my expertise in getting around decays. I estimate a 2X penalty in time and money for the amateur (e.g. tourist) getting around NY.

2. The World Trade Center replacement is adequate. It looks nice at night. It is in no way a replacement for the mass of the original building(s), nor is it interesting enough on its own merit to be a replacement. However, I think this is all irrelevant, in a few years, no one will care.

3. There is an amusing statue commemorating the special forces who went into Afghanistan immediately after 911. The siginficance of the American mounted on a horse will not be lost on those who know the history of the cavalry in this country.

4. The cost of a slice of plain pizza has gone up to $2.50.

5. The State of NY is pulling out the stops to encourage technology startups. More on this in later posts.

6. I found the documentation at the Metropolitan on their exhibits to be irritating. More on this in a later post.

7. The former ease with which I dealt with my ADHD medication in NYC is no longer. Yes, the DEA has struck even here.

8. B&H is much larger, much more computer oriented, and a great resource. I actually had people who knew somewhat about cameras help me with my temporary digital camera choice. It was a great experience.

9. United has really pissed me off with its reticketing policy. I have switched to American Airlines. Alert the media.

10. The weather in NY was amazingly warm.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Arrival in NY, NYU, Brigham, Speer and the Virgin Mary

Revised 11/11/2013

Dearest Marie

I have arrived safely in New York City, a city I have heard so much about but not really visited since earlier in the century.   These notes will record some of my impressions and now that I have given into Satan and bought a digital camera, some pictures as well eventually.

Your idea of buying a cheap notebook worked great, mostly.   Windows 8 can be tamed it turns out, Microsoft is its own worst enemy.  The keyboard can be used but the mousepad is so big on the palm rest that if you indeed use it as a rest you mess with the touchpad and your mouse goes to hell and gone.

I checked into NYU and Perlin arranged for me to have a badge!  I did not have the heart to tell him that I still had my old one from 2000.   They want me to return it when done, fat chance.  The 12th floor looks very very similar to the way I remembered it.    I feel bad bothering people when I need something.   Ken has an interesting vision and we will see where it all goes.  I know from experience that in academia, things are complicated and may not be what they seem.   Danger everywhere!

I did notice that Chris Bregler when he did motion capture did not use the basic ballerina / stripper approach of so many of his peers, but went straight for an Olympic diving champion.  I applaud his taste in exploiting women and plan to complement him on this the next time I see him

I found Tom Brigham, and he is doing better than I expected.  His subterranean basement appears at first to be a junk room, but when you go further in you see there is order in the madness.  He thinks this is camoflage, but I think its just bad marketing.  He has to convince people he is not a flake, and presenting his office/workshop as a pile of junk to the casual observer is the wrong approach.

Speer took me around on Saturday and we got in Chelsea, the MET and some music.  The man is a dynamo of energy, the prototypical uber-new-yorker.   If I had stayed with him on Sunday instead of doing who knows what I would have seen the apparaitions of the virgin mary as photographed by the fabulous Veronica Leueken.  The Church does not believe these are true visions of the Virgin, then what are they?

These are her predictions as recorded in her ecstatic visions.  See link below.  Note that in 1977 under Revolutions she predicts the 3 W as a sign of the end times.   3W could mean 3 wars, or could it mean she predicted the WWW (world wide web) as a sign of the coming collapse of civilization?

But now I must get out of Arlene's shelter for the poor here on Broome street and face the cold hard world and go to NYU and play with all the great stuff that Perlin has collected.

PS The MET was wonderful but the Rome exhibit was very underwhelming.

I miss you greatly and look forward to returning to our little Rancho in Siberia.

                                                     Your devoted Dimitri.