Category Archives: Art

A conversation from Radiolab

A: I think we’re just machines. I think we are just made of matter… For me, that doesn’t make me feel we’re any less special. I think, how, what a wonderful thing… How wonderful, that this process, and that these little collections of matter are able to produce Cezanne’s water colors and Bach’s preludes.

Q: But, could you, if I built you a computer, that could create equally beautiful watercolors, and equally beautiful musical compositions, would you feel happier or diminished?

A: I think, in a way you’re asking, if you see how the trick is done, does it then, vanish? Does it just become a trick? … I feel, the art I love, is always art that I don’t fully understand. There’s some mystery there, always. I don’t quite fathom it. Now so, if the computer is churning out a bunch of notes, and you know exactly the rules the computer is following, and there’s no mystery, how can that possibly be a great piece of music? And the answer is, we don’t know how the computer is going to do it, we don’t know how the machine is going to do it. And when the computer produces music that is as lovely as the music that you and I love, I believe it will still be unfathomable.

An Optimization Problem

John sent me an amazing website called Embroidery Troubleshooting Guide.

It has a hilarious, potentially unintentional(?), html bug which causes all the text blocks, because of missing closing tags, to be nested inside one another, each 17% larger than its parent. By the bottom of the page, the text is much too large to fit on a screen, and all you see is contrasting blocks of color, sharp peaks and broad curves. It was, in a way, awe-inspiring– a tiny world worth exploring.


John has been long interested in this idea of semi-randomly generated design elements. In the past he has played with circles with radius R and center (x,y) determined by some weighted random algorithm. It looked alright, but the experience didn’t vary too much from iteration to iteration.

He also had some bands of color on the side of a page whose widths and hues were determined randomly. That also looked pleasant, but indistinct. It’s a much more difficult problem to vary the topology of your design.

Recently, a researcher in the CS department came to our group to talk about a method he developed for the optimization of geometry. These kinds of problems are often encountered when one has a specific function for a component to perform, such as a bracket to support as much load as possible, but there are constraints to work within, such as total amount of available material. If the geometry is simplified (say, it is approximated as a ring), the computation and optimization is simple. But what about an arbitrary geometry?

How do we choose our variables to smoothly vary? Specifically, how would our algorithm test for topological changes? The opening of a new hole, for instance, or the merging of a hole with a boundary, is not smoothly reachable by simply varying the lengths of existing arcs and the areas of existing embedded shapes.

He solved this problem by embedding the 2D geometry in a 3D space. A 3-dimensional function is stored, whose cross-sections represent the desired 2D geometrical object. The function’s parameters can be smoothly varied, which, along with the placement of the cross-section, will determine the 2D structure’s shape and topology.


I bring up this example, because, looking at this zoomed-in text as a geometrical object, it’s amazing how many different shapes can be got from looking at different parts of the letter “e” for instance. In a way, John’s problem is an optimization problem just without the optimization bit. You want to explore as much of the configuration space as possible, but in a tractable way. And still, the most elegant way of invoking topological changes is to excerpt from some larger, well-defined function.

Souls cross the skies o’ time

But what ’bout your soul? I asked.
Prescients don’t b’lief souls exist.
But ain’t dyin’ terrorsome cold if there ain’t nothin’ after?
Yay–she sort o’ laughed but not smilin’, nay–our truth is terrorsome cold.
Jus’ that once I sorried for her. Souls cross the skies o’ time, Abbess’d say, like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world. Somni’s the east’n’west, Somni’s the map an’ the edges o’ the map an’ b’yonder the edges.

– p. 302 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell.

A bit of wishful thinking. But to those who say that these 6 short stories do not make a whole, I think they absolutely do. Sure, there are themes, like greed, and youth, and freedom, and authority, and they are underdeveloped if they are to be themes but I think they’re hardly the point. They’re incidentals. They appear to be themes because that’s what’s familiar and we’ve come to expect morals from our stories. But the book is just a log, a ship’s log, aboard a vessel which travels the 400 years of human civilization, from its approximate beginnings to its essential end. These themes, they crop up, but only because they are the preoccupation of humans, which are the stories narrators and players.

This picture really gets me. And I don’t know why. It’s a radar image, with coordinates overlayed. The Hawaii of Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.

My First WILT

I’ve joined this mailing list called What I Learned Today. Hopefully it will encourage me to put more of my scatter-brained thoughts into words. This is my first one. Took me like an hour and a half to write it. Not used to spending that much time writing any more. Hopefully I’ll get back into the habit of blogging, too.

Hi all, long time wiltee first time wilter, hope you find these thoughts somewhat interesting.

So, as other wilts have brought up, Larisa, Alec and me had dinner (crepes !) a few nights ago. Alec mentioned something during dinner that I’ve been thinking some about. It’s his personal opinion that there is an imbalance of roles in science: that the culture places too much emphasis (and reward) on chasing the “new” rather than making sense of the existing… Basically– too many explorers and not enough cartographers. (hope i’m not mis-representing)

I’ve long had an unhappy sense about the scientific community, I’m not sure that that’s it exactly, I think that there is still great reward and respect to be earned by “re-mapping” an existing theory (otherwise Feynman wouldn’t have a PhD) as long as some new kind of understanding (again, new) can be gained. Which is ok, because I think it’s natural for scientists to be disproportionately concerned with the new. After all, if science were to adopt a central doctrine, it would have to be that the universe is made up of a collection of truths, and these truths though they may be infinite can be determined by a finite set of laws.

As a result scientists tend to see the world as incomplete: as this dark object with only some parts lit up. The lit up parts are nice to look at and all but it just makes them crazy what’s going on beyond. Because to them this thing has a definite shape- it’s just hidden by all the dark, and until we have it all what’s the point of spinning it around and turning it over? It’s the job of artists to elevate, to attribute “meaning”, to look at it from an infinite number of angles.

But that actually brings me to the thing that does bother me about the scientific culture: not, why aren’t scientists artists, but why can’t artists be scientists? When I looked around at MIT, there were a great number of artists (ppl with artistic inclinations, I mean) studying science. Now I look around in grad school: there are fewer. Post-docs, even fewer, and so on and so on. It’s like… science weeds for not only interest, ability, but somehow most strongly: personality. Implicit in every test, every class, every communication you have, is this notion that science is NOT FOR THE SENSITIVE NOT FOR THE INSECURE NOT FOR THE AIR-HEADED NOT FOR THE HANDS-ON NOT FOR THE PRACTICAL-MINDED not for people who need a minute-or-two, not for you if you have to ask, not for that guy or that guy or that other guy. As if the fact that those folks are not in science now is proof that they shouldn’t be in science ever.

Maybe that’s where your people went, Alec. The people who would otherwise have the scientific expertise to do the re-imagining and re-drawing and re-inventing. Who could raise this world up, spin it around in their hands, and know what they’re looking at. That’s probably where all the girls went, anyhow.

What I learned Today: The smell of cinnamaldehyde sure stays on your hands for a long time.

I leave you all with a haiku I read:

in this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers

—Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828)


I’m setting it up to be too long I think

I’m working on a new poem. Trying to do it in a different style. This is all I have so far. I also know how it’s going to end, more or less. I just need a middle, haha, this is how it always happens. And yes, I’m doing this instead of working on finding a PhD thesis project or working on my current project or doing anything else that could possibly set myself up for a career. Yep. Hurts a little when I think about it.


When Seamus Heaney came to read in Harvard Square
the heat, by then in its third day,
was all anybody could talk about.

So thin-skinned and still mostly children then,
we hid away,
those first fragmented days,
among dark shelving in backs of book shops,
our hands smelling of dust and wet pages,
and listened to the voices
echo themselves and each other
and debate
whether it was a thing that
the wind blew in or maybe it
descended wholesale from the sky
or if somewhere, an explorer deep underground had
raised his shovel high
and struck open an ancient vault, and out,
out poured the lost heat of an earlier earth,
with memory only of chaos and creation,
and rather than having been carried by the wind
or conjured by heaven
up it welled through the pores and cracks in the earth,
and the city, seeing this,
took one deep breath and held it.