FIGHT THE POWER–WITH MAKE-UP!

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I loved the article by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic about how individuals can fight the panoptic power of CCTV and other surveillance devices just by slathering on some face paint.

According to Meyer, “the pixel-calculating machinations of facial recognition algorithms” are thwarted by connivingly applied make up, which transforms one’s f“ace into a mess of unremarkable pixels.” To confuse the computer, one has to apply the make up in patterns that at work against the usual contours of the face. “The patterns are called computer vision dazzle (or CV dazzle). When it works, CV dazzle keeps facial-recognition algorithms from seeing a face. The technique takes its name from the dazzle camouflage of the two World Wars: The Great Power navies sought to protect their ships not by hiding them among the waves but by obscuring their size and movement. CV dazzle was developed by the artist, designer, and entrepreneur, Adam Harvey, who created the patterns as a student at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. The idea behind CV dazzle is simple. Facial recognition algorithms look for certain patterns when they analyze images: patterns of light and dark in the cheekbones, or the way color is distributed on the nose bridge—a baseline amount of symmetry. These hallmarks all betray the uniqueness of a human visage. If you obstruct them, the algorithm can’t separate a face from any other swath of pixels.”

EDWARD SNOWDEN, MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY

(This first appeared on washingtonmonthly.com on July 6th.)

man012626We woke this morning to find that Edward Snowden (Mr. Around the World in Rrrrrrrrrrr! [sound of a screeching stop]) has been offered asylum first in Venezuela, and then in Nicaragua. Perhaps the only person entirely happy about this result may be John Logan, author of the next two James Bond films, who may now be inspired to include a scene of a world-famous leaker meeting an untimely fate at the end of bejeweled thong on the sun-struck beaches of Playa El Agua.

If Snowden can make his way to the Americas (hardly a given), we may learn the answer to one of the burning questions of the moment: what have you been doing all day, Ed? The possibilities of his treatment at Sheremetyevo airport range from detention-lite to a pleasant sterility, the sort of environment that George Clooney might have appreciated in Up in the Air. After almost two weeks, one might expect Snowden to have cleaned up his email folder, finished everything he’s downloaded to his e-reader, and finally got his fill of Diamond Mine.

Should he be scrounging for something else to read, he could do worse than to locate The Man Without A Country, a short story that was published in The Atlantic in December 1863. Written by Edward Everett Hale, the author and clergyman (and not his uncle Edward Everett, the author and orator, or Edward Everett Horton, the comic actor), The Man Without a Country tells the story of a young Army lieutenant Philip Nolan, who becomes friends with the nefarious Aaron Burr. When Burr is indicted for treason for ham-handedly trying to seize part of the Louisiana Territory for himself, Nolan is tried for treason, During the proceedings, he loses his temper, and renounces America. “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” he shouts, and the judge sentences Nolan to his wish: he is to spend the rest of his life aboard United States Navy warships, in exile, with no right ever again to set foot on U.S. soil, and with explicit orders that no one shall ever mention his country to him again.

And so it happens. Nolan spends approximately fifty years aboard various vessels, never allowed to return to US soil. No one is allowed to speak to him about the United States, nor is he allowed to read anything about the country. Over the years, he repents his angry comments, and one day advices a young sailor to avoid his mistake: “Remember, boy, that behind all these men … behind officers and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother … !” At the end of the story, a dying Nolan shows invites an officer named Danforth to his room. It has become a patriotic shrine, with a flag, pictures of George Washington and a bald eagle. Danforth tells Nolan everything that happened to America since his sentence was imposed; the narrator confesses, however, that “I could not make up my mouth to tell him a word about this infernal rebellion,’’—the Civil War. When Nolan is found dead later that day, they find that he has written his own epitaph:

In memory of PHILIP NOLAN, Lieutenant in the army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands

Treacly stuff, in a way, yet quite moving in its sentimental power. The story was a Civil War story, designed to use sentiment and argument to show what the country as a whole, as opposed to the individual states, had achieved. I’d love to hear what Snowden thinks of the tale a few years from now, although generally speaking, those who possess the audacity to commit a great deed seldom have the audacity to reconsider it.

HEAR, HEAR, WIESELTIER!

leonwieseltierAt some point in high school, in one of those endless bifurcations people come up with to make sense of society, I realized that all the smart guys at my school could be divided up into two categories–word guys and numbers guys. Both word guys and numbers guys could get good grades in both the word subjects (English, history, social studies, etc.( and numbers subjects (math and science) but all of us had a more natural affinity for one or the other. And that was fine. Word guys had their domain, and numbers guys had theirs. Peace reigned.

Some years ago, I realized that the number guys had taken over. Between computers, the domination of market ideology in business, the reduction of electoral politics to statistical analyses, even the way saberemetrics has taken over sports, almost everything has been dominated by numbers. Everyone is seeking alpha. Or the lowest common denominator. Or alpha through the lowest common denominator. That is happening more and more.

Anyway, for me, the peace of high school had been shattered. My domain was in ruins. And I didn’t know quite how to express what had happened.

But thank goodness, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has captured the moment, with pith and brilliance. Last month Wieseltier gave a speech at the Brandeis commencement, and damn if he didn’t make sense of everything. His speech is so amazing that I quote it in full:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more? I am genuinely honored to be addressing you this morning, because in recent years I have come to regard a commitment to the humanities as nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic,

Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

Do not believe the rumors of the obsolescence of your path. If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen. There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience – which is to say, you are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are. Congratulations.

Yes, Leon! I am with you completely! To the barricades!

POP UP SUCCESS

SUCCESS_Magazine_June_2013Here is my new article in Success magazine, about chef Ryan Umane, and the pop up restaurant phenomenon:

The intersection of 79th and Third is close to the bull’s-eye center of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, whose residents are as rich, glamorous and well-fed as those of any piece of terra firma.

Standing there on a frigid January night, one could wander in any direction, and before going a mile not help but fall into a world-class restaurant: Daniel, Ladurée, Sasabune, Luke’s Lobster, Café Boulud, Campagnola, Caravaggio, Uva—you can’t make a mistake.

But for our delicious meal tonight, instead of going north, south, east or west, we are going straight up, ascending 11 stories to the apartment of Ryan Umane. He’s a 28-year-old up-and-coming chef who has grabbed his spatula and cast-iron frying pan and joined the pop-up restaurant movement. Testaments to culinary and entrepreneurial innovation, pop-ups first blossomed as a fad some five years ago, then became a wave, and now show every sign of sticking around as a thriving alternative to the traditional restaurant experience.

Pop-up is a phenomenon of loose parameters. Purists reserve the term for the most evanescent of the species, the small place with a haphazard ambience but a molto delizioso cuisine that shows up in an empty storefront one day but is likely to be gone the next, unless it turns into a whopping success. Ad Hoc in Napa, for instance, started as a placeholder restaurant but was so popular it became a brand, spinning off a cookbook and a fried chicken mix.

(To read the rest, click here.)

LUCKY TO BE UNIMPRESSED

We hosted Sandy, the Storm of the Century here this past week, and frankly, we pretty much missed it. Oh, we had impressively high winds that we could see thrashing the trees across the street all day. And yes, we lost phone/cable/internet service for three whole days. But in terms of personal impact, we’ve had worse.

Not that I’m complaining. We did the rising flood thing in 1998 (Floyd, theoretically a hundred year storm) and in 2011 (the widely disrespected Alice, which did us upwards of $20,000 worth of damage), and the no power thing during the 2010 Olympics. I don’t need to get clobbered every time. I’m sorry anybody gets hurt by these things anywhere, at any time. But I’m glad that this time, it wasn’t us.

But it could have been. Trees were down all over–four giants right in Law Park, a mere two blocks from us–and many friends and neighbors are still without power.Things might not be restored for a week. Good luck to them.

AND HERE IS THE REASON WHY!

This is the undefeated cap which my daughter Cara gave me for Christmas. With the magic conjured by the combination of this cap and my head, the Giants beat the Jets and the Cowboys to close out the regular season, and then beat the Falcons, Packers, 49ers and the Patriots to win Super Bowl XLVI. Tomorrow, I shall offer it to the permanent collection at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

CHECK, PLEASE

The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, for more than a half century on the premier locations for cabaret in Manhattan, has closed. Prior to its musical incarnation, the Oak Room was famous for being the home of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table, where gathered the great witty writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Pictured in the famous Al Hirschfeld cartoon reprinted above, clockwise from lower left: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt, Frank Crowninshield, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, Frank Case, Franklin P. Adams, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman and Robert Sherwood.