ode to a Cat

Twelve years ago, one of my high school English teachers congratulated me on graduating, and gave me a thoughtful gift that I still appreciate - poems by Neruda. Now its cover is warped and pages are faded, but I’ve nearly memorized my favorite verse from the collection:  ‘Oda al Gato’

For no reason other than cats are awesome, here’s a (translated) excerpt:

“your kind
need not puzzle us, surely -
you, the least of the mysteries
abroad in the world, known to us all, the pawn
of the lowliest householder -
or they think so! -
for each calls himself master,
proprietor, playfellow,
cat’s uncle, colleague,
the pupils of cats
or their cronies.

Not I:
I reckon things otherwise.
I shall never unriddle the cat.
I take note of the other things: life’s archipelagoes,
the sea, the incalculable city,
botanical matters,
the pistil, the pistil’s mutations,
plus-and-minus arithmetic,
volcanoes that funnel the earth
the improbable rind of the crocodile,
the fireman’s unheeded benevolence,
the atavist blue of the clergyman-
but never the cat!
We do not concern him: our reasoning boggles,
and his eyes give their numbers in gold.”

 

When I’m hanging out with my cat (London, seen above) I really feel Neruda’s words. London doesn’t want to be a human, or dinosaur, or anything else. He doesn’t care about wearing pants. He has serious business to attend to, all the time. I don’t know what it is – but it’s serious.

His most beloved way of attention-getting is the head-butt. If there is something he deems I should be paying attention to, head-butts are distributed until I comply.

If I’m sleeping in, and he decides I have better things to do, he plucks the strings on my guitar with his teeth until I’m awake. He has is own bed, and uses it often, but prefers sometimes to stage his dreams on top of mine, pawing his way into a cocoon on my pillow. His bed, my bed, the breakfast bar. Any flat surface will do. Naps are unscheduled and frequent.

Some cats aren’t friendly. They hide under the bed when company arrives, or they haunt their people from high perches, sneering down unlovingly. London is the opposite. He will climb your legs and shoulders at first introduction. He prefers to carefully screen any reading material I pick up before I can settle in with it, swatting at the pages, sprawling across the entire book.

I don’t know what chorus he learned it from, but many afternoons a concert takes place in the bathtub. Merrroooh, Murraww, Meereew, he sings – it bounces off the bare tiles, loudly. When he isn’t singing, sometimes he is annoyed, and then his voice is inexplicably an exact replica of Marge Simpson’s groan – Mrhhrrmmmmmhh.

Sometimes I wonder how his memory works. If he sees a suitcase start filling up with clothes, it becomes abundantly clear that he is Not O.K. with anyone leaving, even if it’s been months since the last time he saw a suitcase. But on a regular basis, he needs a soft reminder that eating my plants is an offense punishable by water bottle squirting.

He used to live with his brother, Paris, but they are now separate. As kittens they got along famously, but they’ve now been apart for a few years. I’m curious what kind of a reunion they might have. Would it be, “Oh, hey bro, good to see you again”…? Or something more like “I’m going to pee right now, on this carpet, so you know that I belong here and you don’t.”

Head-butting is a great attention-getter, and he employs it often. But he can also work below the radar to let humans know where the power really lies.

Coming home a few years ago to my apartment, after a long workday, I found some of my neighbors outside talking with a group of firefighters. Someone had left their gas burner on, and filled the building up with noxiousness. It wasn’t me, of course, because I am Super Responsible.

But… walking inside, and finding my apartment door open, I was shocked. It was coming from my apartment. I hadn’t used the stove in days – how was this possible?

London winked at me from the corner. The knob on the stove had been turned by his little paw, just enough to start up the gas without a flame. In his innocent leaps and bounds across my kitchen appliances, harmlessly searching for a snack, my furry friend had made an invitation to the fire department.

I’ve since forgiven him. What choice do I have? Not only did he maintain my favor, but I continue to shovel his poop from a box of sand whenever he decides its necessary.

When he’s scrunched up into a little cat-ball, quietly looking through the window out upon the wild, vast expanse of the patio, eyes wide open, fixed intently on this, and then that, and then another thing – something must be on his mind. But as Neruda said, I’m not going to be the guy who finally unriddles it.

before ‘Felina’

There are absolutely spoilers below. Do not read, if you have not watched the Breaking Bad series in its entirety. I plead. 

The joy of episodic narrative is that the audience gets to play the guessing game. We get to suppose what is coming next, week after week, testing our theories and validating our assumptions and essentially judging our own intelligence or predictive abilities. We take joy in the cliffhanger endings, that lead to cold opens, jumping to our own conclusions about what will come next, trying to stay a step ahead of the participants.

But Heisenberg, both the real quantum physicist and television’s Walter White, will not let us engage our prophesying peacefully.

Heisenberg, the real-life physicist from whom the fictional Walter White took his pseudonym, is credited with discovering the Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, which states…

The more precisely the position (momentum) of a particle is given, the less precisely can one say what its momentum (position) is.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-uncertainty/

If the audience of an episodic narrative subscribes to this principle, we can translate the language of science to the formula of story –  The more precisely the position (current feelings, attitude, desires) of a character is given, the less precisely can one say what is the characters momentum (future intentions and plans.) This calculation works naturally against our human instinct to form logical expectations about people and their objectives.

I can’t recall any story, in any format, having illustrated the uncertainty principle so gracefully as Breaking Bad. At every point when the position of a character seems to gain clarity, their momentum becomes exponentially more ambiguous. Every new door opened throws shadow on some corner to be backed into. I could litter this essay with examples, but frankly, every single scene of the sixty-some episodes of the show is evidence.

I have one episode left to watch, titled ‘Felina.’ The series finale. A true easter egg, this title – an acronym for the elements Fe, Li, and Na – Iron, Lithium, and Sodium – key components of blood, methamphetamine, and tears. And in truly uncertain glory, the combination of those acronyms form a beautifully poetic word, something like ‘finale,’ something like ‘felled,’ something like ‘felon.’ In the last scene which we saw Walter, he watched his former business partner on television explaining to the world Walter’s contribution to their billion dollar company. He said it was just the name - Grey Matter – a combination of their names, Black and White.

And now we have this new word, ‘Felina’, a combination of Fella and Niña, ‘boy’ and the Spanish for ‘girl’, all that Walter allegedly ever cared about, his two children. What uncertain momentum awaits for the the White children? We last saw Holly surrounded by masked men as she slept in her crib, and Walter Jr. wishing death for his father who called him in a desperate plea for forgiveness. Their positions are known, but their momentum is all the more uncertain. The position of this word as the series finale’s title could indicate momentum toward resolution for the White children. Or it could mean nothing at all. 

To test the theory of narrative uncertainty, I want to write out what I feel are the position and momentum of the characters, before I witness their literary conclusions. Much foundation has been laid to give me a plausible idea of what could or could not happen. But as fixed as the positions for every character seem, at this point, I’ve learned better than to hold tight any expectations of what drama will unfold.

Jesse has just witnessed the death of yet another person whom he cared for, another person to which he can ascribe himself guilt in their undoing. He is a caged animal, a used tool, and he despises everything about his life. This is the crystal clear position he is in, but what does it say of his momentum? Where will he end up? His position is more fixed than ever, he appears to be absolutely powerless, outnumbered, alone. But the Uncertainty Principle explains that this fixed position means his momentum is more difficult to perceive. It feels completely plausible to me, given the position of all the other characters, that he will be killed, finally, for refusing to cook meth, or by trying to escape again, or by Walter himself. His death seems almost certain… yet it feels emotionally impossible.

Somehow, Jesse is the last character the audience might have any emotional investment in. Despite the often disastrous consequences of his actions, he has repeatedly tried to do what he thought was right, giving away his ‘blood money’ and trying to prevent Walter from the destruction of any more lives. His slivers of righteousness have the audience hoping, just maybe… that he will find peace, despite the obviously bleak choices available to him. Jesse’s final road will either be one that satisfies the cold reality of his current circumstances (death), or one that redeems him for the muffled justice he has tried to inject into all of the wrongdoing.

Walter’s position also seems quite fixed. His broken and bloodied family rejects him, his identity is compromised, his partner became his enemy. His name and face are recognized in public as belonging to a murderous criminal mastermind. His 80 million dollar empire has reduced to a lonely, snowy cabin with two copies of a shitty DVD and a monthly newspaper delivery. His character, as has been meticulously revealed throughout the season, has lost all credibility and hope of redemption. There will never be a way out for him, there will never be a family for him again. This position is abundantly clear.

Mike helped illustrate this precise position earlier in the season, by telling him he’s a ticking bomb. Yet, Walter won’t sit quietly. He is last seen leaving his sanctuary, trotting back into the fray, begging the question of momentum - what will be the direction of the explosion, when that bomb goes off?

Who will Walter take down with him? Jesse, by going after the drug-makers and engaging one final showdown? Skylar and his children, by attempting to contact the family or transfer money? Or can his clear, evident, irrefutably destructive position – can the simplicity of that explosive position shroud the direction of his momentum to such an extraordinary degree that he simply fizzes out, quietly faces capture, or innocently succumbs to cancer? There is no reasonable guess.

All of these paths of momentum seem equally likely, so anything is fair game. As Heisenberg taught, momentum is uncertain… and as Walter taught, in episode 1, chemistry is not the study of chemicals, but of change.

(A big round of applause for the A.V. Club in guiding me through the Breaking Bad viewing experience with brilliant insight)

on Walter White and ‘Offline’ Identity

I’m apologetically writing this well after it originally aired, but I’ve been watching Breaking Bad for the first time. (Spoilers will be small and few, out of respect for the uninitiated.)

Instead of offering my own full-bootlicking about how amazing the show actually is, I’ll simply quote from, and agree with, these words from the AV Club’s review of the episodes ‘ABQ’ and ‘Full Measures’ -

“…this show has been one of serialized drama’s greatest accomplishments.  Television itself suddenly seems to have an expanded horizon of possibilities — for characterization, for juxtaposition, for thematic depth.  Whatever happens from this hellish moment, the long descent to this point, with all its false dawns and sudden crashes, was singularly awe-inspiring, uniquely cathartic. People living through a golden age often don’t know it.”

“Extraordinary flowerings of art, technology, culture, or knowledge are obscured by intractable problems, crises, declines in other parts of the society… It’s easy to look at television, with its 500 channels worth of endless crappy versions of the same empty ideas, and conclude that everything’s gone to shit… Ironically, this pronouncement coincides with the greatest flowering of televised drama and comedy in the medium’s history.”

There are many qualities that make Breaking Bad an incredible viewing experience, the first of which is Bryan Cranston’s boundless performance in the lead role. His acting is the only reason I’m able to think of this show in such a realistic context, and analyze his character as if it were an actual person in the same world that I live in. I could offer unending praise on the acting, the brilliant camera work, dialogue, etc. But I just want to focus this post on one specific thing that’s caught my attention, as I set out to finish the series over the next few weeks.. (let’s be real.. Days.)

Walter White’s defining characteristic is arguably his squabble with identity – is he the murderous meth-cooking gangster boss Heisenberg? Or is he the doting father, soft husband, and nerdy brother-in-law?  Is there room in a single fictitious character for both? (Yes.) Is there room in a real human being for both? (I believe so.) Maybe the show’s finale will answer some of these questions definitively, but I haven’t reached that point, so I’m still undecided on the matter. I’m willing to guess that there will still be plenty of room for interpretation on Walter’s moral character, even after the last episode’s credits roll.

The question of his identity seems so important because of other things happening in our culture right now. This is the age of facebook, where the privatest lives of the most everyday people are just as public as any royal. The first season of Breaking Bad aired in 2008, the heady days in which ‘social media’ became a phenomenon too large for anyone to ignore. The show continued playing out on the screen while in the audience’s living rooms, internet technologies connected the personal lives of everyone around the world at a breakneck pace – most intensely, the lives of comfortably wealthy Americans, especially those with an interest in the sciences or technology.

If the impetus for Walter’s entire journey is his need for money – in Season 1, funding cancer treatment was his reason for embarking on a criminal campaign - how could someone of his cultural demographics overlook the most money-making industry of this decade, the internet? When Breaking Bad premiered, and for years before, the American economy has been driven by the high value of software and computer technology. But Walter isn’t part of that America, somehow.

By all accounts, Walter White, caucasian middle-class scientist, teacher, and 2004 Pontiac Aztec driver, is the incarnate persona of a modern American internet user. If you knew a man with Walter’s pedigree, you would expect he spent his time off in some dorky enterprise like geo-caching, or beta testing Google Glass. His chemically-laced resume screams “Googler.”

But in which episode did we ever see Walter crack open a laptop? Somehow, all this fancy new ‘social’ technology has overlooked him. Instead of the positive social incubator it is intended to be, it only becomes an opportunity for further advancement into Walter’s fragile anonymity as a criminal.

The show doesn’t completely leave the internet out of its narrative – Walter Jr. raises money for his Dad’s cancer by setting up a donation website, Skylar does her research for money laundering on Wikipedia – but it rejects the idea, so often presented in today’s culture, that all of this online transparency is influential in a way that would prevent someone from taking fuller measures to hide their deviant intentions.

In the world of Breaking Bad, Walter is not persuaded by these popular new gadgets to connect in a positive way to his community, as much as Facebook would like to “make the world a more open place,” and Google would like everyone to follow its corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.” Silicon Valley’s utopian rhetoric falls limply on Walter/Heisenberg’s deaf hears.

I might be overly sensitive to this idea, working as I currently am for a company, ID.me, whose purpose is to enable an individual’s authority over their identity on the internet. In this field, as it exists now, all roads are converging on transparency. There is no accommodation for subversive duality, in the minds of those leading the development of digital identity. On Google,Facebook, ID.me, and anywhere else you want to be yourself online, you only get one persona, and it’s intended to comprise your whole self.

Popular opinion has recently treated privacy as debatable, far from an ‘inalienable right,’ and the public parade of social media is driving the idea further.  The notion that governments and neighbors can snoop and sneak through a citizen’s life, online, is commonplace.

The narrative of Breaking Bad indirectly comments on the situation: it says Yes, a person may keep part of their life private… but they might be a drug kingpin. And with its morally circuitous characters, it also diffusely challenges the evolving concept of identity, by illustrating - No, the depths of a person probably cannot be summarized by a few photographs they post to their ‘wall.’

GoPro… for the Average Joe

My calendar doesn’t have any upcoming skydiving, scuba or surfing adventures, but I’m the proud new owner of a GoPro Hero III camera, and well… I’ve got to do something with it.

Their small & easily portable form, rugged accessories, and reputation for being nearly indestructible make GoPro cameras the device of choice for adventure sport athletes, whether they’re trekking up Mt. Everest or scaling skyscrapers in Shanghai.

The rest of us can still find ways to be creative with the GoPro. I’ve been using the camera’s time lapse feature to record activities that a typical video wouldn’t capture very well – running, cooking, feeding the cat. Anything that takes thirty minutes, but looks very much cooler when it’s played back in three is fair game.

Out of the box, the Hero III comes with a waterproof case, several pieces of mounting hardware, and wireless functionality. Accessories available for purchase include systems for mounting the GoPro on just about anything – a bicycle, a vehicle, a human head.

The image quality is amazing for such a tiny device, with settings to shoot up to 12MP stills, and 4K video.

GoPro still image

One of the most amazing things is the storage medium – the GoPro uses MicroSD cards, a memory format that is smaller than a fingernail and capable of holding 64 gigabytes of data. When I think of my first digital camera and its 32 megabyte memory card, my head spins at how far along the technology has come.

I haven’t shot much actual video with the camera yet, because frankly, I don’t often do anything exciting that would warrant such documentation. But I enjoy experimenting with the time lapse feature, either to capture the changes of an environment from a stationary perspective (like a sunrise) or to show a subject that’s moving around within a small space (like me in the kitchen.)

The GoPro Cineform Studio, the device’s software, is capable of changing the frame-rate of video to either slow it down or speed it up – an exciting feature that I hope I’ll find a reason to use soon. Additionally, editing features like white balance, contrast, and style filters are available to add artistic flavor to any project. The Studio is a robust application and its inclusion with a camera purchase is a great bargain.

Trendy Tech Article Round-up

Half of my cognitive load on any given day is spent fighting the urge to read EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE on the internet. Fortunately, some make it through my productivity filter, and I allow myself to read them. Lately I’ve been using the very cool application Pocket to save things I want to read later.

Several pieces grabbed my attention this week. Each touched on the start-up culture in which I work, but I didn’t feel like the target audience – they all hinted direction at a reader on the outside of the tech world: Rolling Stone’s big interview with Bill Gates, the NY Times Magazine’sSilicon Valley’s Youth Problem‘, and two from the Wall Street Journal – ‘Success Outside the Dress Code‘ and ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code.’

Mr. Gates’ most interesting statements revealed his thoughts on morality, religion, and government, but he also answered questions about the current state of things – massive acquisitions of zero-revenue companies, and the possibility of living in a constant state of surveillance.

The Times article was engrossing, chronicling the division between youth-driven startup culture and the legacy of elder-generation technologists (like Zuckerburg / Gates.) Is it just coincidence that Gates gave an interview to the youth-focused Rolling Stone at the same time as the Times publishes a manifesto on the generational disconnect?

The two WSJ articles also share the ‘young tech’ theme  - ‘Success Outside the Dress Code’ investigates the results of a study on how dressing casually in formal settings can influence opinion (a practice, common among young software developers, which I am happy to rant about) – and the other, ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code’ about how young graduates of all departments are abandoning the academic disciplines they studied in favor of higher-paying software industry positions (as an English major working with a Ruby on Rails development team, this one really hit home)

So what catalyzed this deluge of similarly focused articles? ‘Big Media’ writes about technology often, but something about the tone of this writing seems different – Bill Gates waxing poetic on billion dollar acquisitions and world-saving to the pot-smoking readership of Rolling Stone, the NY Times writer (a young Silicon Valley alumn) broadcasting her concern over whether she should work for a hot young startup like Uber or a crusty old-guard firm like Cisco, and the Wall Street Journal exploring the incongruities of tech culture – how its citizens dress eccentrically and give up their educational idealism in favor of cold, hard cash.

Of the articles, Yirin Lu’s writing in the Times magazine stands out the most. Her personal anecdotes as an intern in Silicon Valley bind well to the concrete examples of age division she describes. She rejects the presumption that older companies are home to “subpar, less technically proficient” employees – she cites the number of patents owned by Cisco as evidence to the contrary. Yet, as the WSJ article describes, tech companies are trying to grab as many young engineers as they can – some going as far as offering signing bonuses to dissuade potential hires from finishing college. If only Mr. Gates had fielded a related question in his interview, he surely could have added a valuable argument to the debate.

The Wall Street Journal pieces are brief, neither explores their territory with the critical and sharp eye that Lu focuses on her topic. But each shares the provocative attitude that a certain kind of delirium resides in Silicon Valley’s money soaked culture. In Gates’s interview, he states: “When you have a lot of money, it allows you to go down a lot of dead ends.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly what statement these articles are all trying to make, if any. What I’m most curious about is how deeply these discussions will resonate with their audience, or if they are only this week’s flavor of capricious media interests. Perhaps the journalists’ unstated intent in their recent scrutinization of the modern technocracy is to map those “dead ends” out before too many people (without Mr. Gates’ resources) get stuck moving toward them.

Snow from a Phone

I (unbelievably) can’t remember how many times snow has fallen this winter. Seven? Fourteen? Twenty? I’ve been using Instagram to capture the beauty of the season.

From nearly 70°F two days ago, to eight (!) inches of snow this morning, watching the deviant flakes fall this St. Patrick’s Day is a fitting way to celebrate the nonconformist Irish spirit.

Sláinte!

In Reality, Googling

The line of audience members queuing up for their turn to throw a question at Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, seemed oddly like an inefficient search engine. There were so many things un-Googley about it, like having to wait for someone else to finish before I could ask a question, and having to get up out of my seat to get in line.

Otherwise, the hour that Schmidt spent discussing his latest book “The New Digital Age,” with co-author Jared Cohen, covered much ground and put a human face on a company that often seems much more robotic than peopled.

The book was just released in paperback and plastered with glowing reviews from statesmen including Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and the like. In it, the authors Cohen and Schmidt attempt to map out a future which they label as humanity’s greatest experiment to date with ‘anarchy’ – the internet.

The forum at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington was largely open to audience participation and effectively managed by a moderator who was prone to poking fun at the speakers – he claimed, ‘No matter how many billions of dollars he has, Eric is still a dork,’ after a story about Schmidt’s peculiar interest in flak-jackets was told.

Topics from gender equality in the workplace, the role of technology in societies at war, and the responsibilities of parents in the realm of online privacy were all touched on. Hard working women were given ample credit for helping Google achieve the success it has, and Schmidt, when asked how the public sector might follow the same course, responded by saying, simply – ‘Promote them!’

He circled around several points of praise for promoting women in the workplace, but coming up short on actual advice for the public sector, retreated to saying ‘The fact that there’s a conversation about this right now is a start.’

It wasn’t the only topic which would prompt the ‘…it’s good to talk about…’ refrain. Inevitably, the conversation turned to government surveillance. Schmidt began to outline the international reactions to the idea, saying that if you ask a citizen in Germany about government internet snooping, you’ll get a totally different answer than you would if a citizen in Britain, or the United States gave their opinion. ‘The fact that we’re having this conversation is a start,’ he said again.

Its a reasonable answer, and that this discourse is taking place so amicably between citizens and government is fantastic, but Schmidt’s story of ‘to each their own’ fell short of making a real statement.

“Beware the myth of the single omnipotent decision maker,’ Schmidt related when asked about his philosophy on leadership. He went on to describe a room full of people, sitting around a table and shooting down each other’s ideas as the most effective way to come to a solution, lambasting the idea of a heroic individual effort in coming to profound conclusions. His regard for collaborative decision making might explain his reticence on American leadership in the debate about government snooping – perhaps its better to wait and see what everyone else thinks, too.

Cohen, a younger Google employee and the leader of the ‘Google Ideas’ branch of the company, took over when an audience member began to inquire about online privacy. ‘Its the parent’s responsibility,’ he began, ‘to talk about privacy before they even discuss the birds & the bees’ with their children. I felt like this was a punt, and much the same kind of argument that pro-gun advocates make when claiming that it’s the shooters who are to blame in a killing and not the guns.

One of the final questions of the session was the most interesting – a man asked if in this age of information inundation, whether tools like Google are doing anything to help filter the signal from the noise, or if they are actually making it harder to sift through unnecessary information – and again, from Cohen, a punt: ‘It’s a human problem, not a technology one.’