Immature Poets


Etymologies are always fascinating. The quote ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ is interesting in and of itself and its history is particularly relevant to the topic you brought up. It’s gone through multiple metamorphoses, starting from a publication in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ in 1892. The original quote (which was a much more straightforward jab at plagiarizers) was actually completely inverse in meaning to its contemporary cousin: ‘great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.’ In 1920, the poet T.S. Elliot presented his own take on this (his explanation is particularly salient here):

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

After Eliot, both Igor Stravinsky and William Faulkner had very similar quotes (but now referring to musical composition and stage design, instead of poetry). Interestingly enough, Steve Jobs was also known for using the quote and attributing it to Pablo Picasso, though that attribution has not been verified. Nevertheless, several of the most influential artists of the 20th century all agreed on this major point.

It is ok to steal content from others, so long as you leave your own unique mark on whatever it is you stole. Does it matter that much of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech was not based on original material? I would contend that, no, it doesn’t. Much like it doesn’t matter that ‘I will always love you’ was not originally a Whitney Houston song. Both of those artists left a mark on the work that made it distinctly their own, even if they outright stole some part of it.

I think this is a generalizable point, and one that can describe many parts of life. It is not a matter of blue collar vs white collar vs. no collar. It is a matter of whether your life amounts to an imitation of someone else, some vague idealized ghost of a person who has a ‘dream job’, ‘dream house’ or a ‘dream school.’ Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dream, but maybe that we should be careful to not let others subtly affect those dreams (Inception!?!?!). We should steal parts of life we like, and mold them into what is right for us.

Finally, note also that Elliot doesn’t use the adjectives ‘good’ or ‘great’. Instead he opts for ‘immature’ and ‘mature’. When we’re young, we imitate our parents, our siblings, and our heros. With time, I think the right thing to do is to take the best parts of all of those imperfect, complex humans and mold them into the person we want to be.


NFC Podcast #7: Art and Boyhood

Our 7th podcast! We talk about Bollywood, art criticism, and Matthew McConaughey.

Heisenberg Art

Here’s an expectation for you: this post is going to be dope! Wait no, never-mind, that’s too high of a bar – I’ll never live up to it. This post will be totally shitty – don’t expect much. Meh, too low – I’m selling myself short (I’m much taller than that). Where should I set the bar? Your point is that the bar shouldn’t be set anywhere – it should be totally unknown. If art is experienced with absolutely no preconceptions does that really give us the best ‘unfiltered’ experience? Perhaps, but the experience will always be tainted by all of the other subtexts in your own life. You can never run away from context – someone’s recommendation is just another piece of context within a myriad of other factors that may or may not help you enjoy a piece of art. Recommendations are, however, useful for helping us guide us through the torrent of possible movies, music and other subjective experiences. There just isn’t enough time in the world and it’s probably worthwhile to not waste it on things we’ll certainly dislike.

But is a specific bar useful? No, it probably isn’t. What we need is to move on from our classical conception of ‘defined levels’ of art appreciation and criticism, towards more of a quantum mechanical perspective: we need to embrace the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in our art recommendations. Heisenberg’s principle says that there is a fundamental limit to how precisely we can know certain physical properties. Like with these types of constants, our language for art should resemble a probability density: it should help us understand how that person feels about the art in general, while still leaving the possibility for other (potentially less likely) interpretations. Art ‘critics’ should instead be art ‘contextualizers’: they should provide us with interesting and useful background information, while also giving an idea of who may enjoy it. Totally one-sided opinionated pieces may be entertaining to read, but they should be marked as that: entertainment.

The probability slanted language can apply to emotional states, humour appreciation, and perceived quality of the art itself. The scale is less important, but the notion of (the lack of) precision is essential. Sure, this would make certain decisions more complicated, but it will be worthwhile in the long run. In the words of Bertrand Russell, ‘one has, in practical life, to act on probabilities…I would encourage people to act with vigour without complete certainty.’

This is of course, my recommendation. Certainty level: 50%.

Seinfeld and the Art of Recommendations

Does art require a specific vocabulary? Yes and no. To me, Rachit, precise, descriptive language may help me appreciate pieces of art, but it rarely, if ever, makes me love something I would otherwise be indifferent to.

Western society seems to value art ‘critics’ who can poignantly analyze a piece of literature, music or film. People like Roget Ebert or the critics of Pitchfork, are often artists in and of themselves in the way they can summarize and pick apart dense, layered films and music. Using the right words to describe art, is an art in-and-of-itself. Meta aside: Is using the right words to describe the words used to describe art, an art? If so, we’re goddamn Picassos.

Back to critics: the word critic is pejorative and rightly or wrongly, often adds a bit a haughty perception of these types of endeavours (think of the scene from Birdman where Michael Keaton rips into the New York Times critic). I think this type of categorization is unwarranted – deep down inside we want honest, no-holds-bar opinions from other people. Was American Idol ever the same without the tactless, blunt Simon Cowell?

Great art is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, but broad brush strokes are often good enough to help people appreciate or stay away from certain pieces. Art ‘language’ helps us communicate and swim through the incredibly vast ocean of music, film and aesthetic pieces. I think the respect and admiration of the art ‘critic’ has waned, primarily because of the wealth of various opinions that is now easily available to the general public. For movies, instead of following the recommendations of one writer, many people now use aggregate websites like Metacritic, and Rotten Tomatoes. To me, these services work well for filtering out movies that almost nobody likes – yet are often not very useful for finding things you would like.

That is where the subjectivity of art is obvious. No matter the medium, the joy we derive from experiencing something artistic is contextual. It depends on our life, our personality and our tastes. When I hear recommendations, the words themselves matter very little. It’s the person who’s saying them that is important to me. Can I empathize with them? Do they like the same things I do?

Take Seinfeld for example. What words would you use to recommend it to me? It’s about people in New York. It’s a show about, in its description of itself, ’nothing’. You could tell me its funny, but funny is contextual – just like ’touching’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘moving’. Communicating broad ideas is certainly important – but when it comes to art, the only convincing way of recommending something is to say ‘just trust me, have I ever recommended something you didn’t like?’


Iguanas and Art

Well, Rachit it’s been a while. We took a long break, but now we’re back. We should say that we weren’t completely ignoring our NFC duties – we started some fiction writing that we hope to publish some time. But for now, back to our regular scheduled quibbling over philosophical minutiae.

For our next topic, let’s talk about “art.” What does it mean to us? What role does it have in our society? In the spirit of high school valedictorian speeches, I wanted to start this topic by trying to define what Art is. Wikipedia has this wonderfully specific definition: “art is a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities.” So basically, art is anything, it’s in the eye of the beholder. That’s not a very fruitful definition so let’s try Merriam-Webster’s: “[art is] something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” That’s more specific, but there are words like ‘imagination’, ‘skill’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘important’ – all concepts that are just as vague. I want to ask you, how is ‘art’ connected to other parts of human culture? It’s hard to imagine that other animals have analogous concepts. I could imagine a pack of Iguana’s playing a primitive version of soccer, but somehow it’s much more difficult to imagine them appreciating a sunset. What is it about Art, with a capital A, that makes it so human?

I think there are two insightful comparisons here. First, art and sports. Much like sports stars, exceptional musicians and artists can be paid incredible sums of money. There are athletes and artists who appeal to the masses, and those that only appeal to experts in the field, those that can understand the subtleties of what it really means to be an artist or athlete. Unlike sport, art, however has no clearly defined rules – it has almost no rules. But what it does have is a pervasive culture of meritocracy. We want to believe that a piece of art speaks for itself and it is unaffected by the reputation or societal standing of the artist. We have ‘art galleries’ that are like mini olympics – showcasing art of amateur artists and exposing them to the masses.

The second comparison is of art and science – or more objective ‘knowledge.’ Largely, art is about personal moments: subjective experience. Science is exactly the opposite – it’s about reproducible, as objective as possible, facts. You’ll probably know where this is going – the ‘b’ word, balance. Of course society needs both. We need art to feed our ‘souls’ and science to feed our ‘minds’. But can we say anything more here? Do certain cultures place more value on one or the other? How does that affect their economic and societal progress? Is it dangerous to place more emphasis on one side of this equation – valuing objective ‘facts’ over subjective emotions?

Lots to discuss, and I’m glad we’re back at it. I hope the new year brings more insights and never-from-concentrate ideas (with lots of pulpy goodness).

Yours in wonder,

NFC Podcast #6: The Privacy Index

The 6th NFC podcast. Today, we discuss smartphones, drones and the Serial podcast!

Red Herrings and Canaries


Interesting analogy, I enjoyed imagining Gandhi slowly metamorphosing into a murderous tyrant. The Schelling fence idea reminds me of a ‘prenup’ that you agree upon (with yourself). I’ve read of similar advice for negotiators: it’s important to set strict limits for an acceptable price prior to the start of the bargain to prevent exactly the same type of slippery slope traps that you brought up. In a purely numerical realm, I think this is certainly possible. But, like you said, it seems that it’s difficult to do the same with other more complicated issues that can’t be reduced to a single number (i.e. privacy). How can you create an effective fence when you have no map? Perhaps, then, we need to take a shot at creating a reasonable privacy map.

What types of numerical scales can we use to quantify privacy? Can those metrics be applied to existing societies to enact laws that declare a base level of privacy as a human right? In the U.S., the current ‘base’ level appears to be the 4th Amendment to the constitution (the prohibition of ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’). Recently, an interesting computer science research paper used a machine learning approach to try and quantify “the point at which long-term government surveillance becomes objectively unreasonable”. Their conclusion was that approximately 1 week of GPS tracking was enough to uniquely identify an individual. Maybe we can use this numerical limit as a starting point for privacy legislation. Can you think of any other ones?

The article linked above also has a fascinating study of a recent supreme court case:

“Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner in Washington, D.C., was suspected by the police of dealing drugs. The local police, working with federal agents, put a GPS tracking device on his car, without a warrant, and gathered his location data for four weeks. Mr. Jones was initially convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy… The Supreme Court [overturned the verdict and] ruled for Mr. Jones, saying his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated because [of] the GPS device on his car.’

I would argue that federal agents attaching a tracking device to your car is the privacy equivalent of an aerial drone filming you doing something revealing. Sure, it’s certainly possible, but the real problem is the fundamental reality of location-aware devices. Most people do not have federal agents tailing them undercover, but we do carry around smartphones that can periodically send location information to a central database. As Supreme court Justice Sotomayor did in her analysis of the case, we can imagine the potential for that data “to detect trips of an ‘indisputably private nature.’” Certainly information about “trips to a psychiatrist, abortion clinic, AIDS treatment center, strip club and mosque” should be private, shouldn’t it? If we limit how much location data can be saved without our consent, we can keep our privacy.

You say that ‘red-herring’ drones can serve to bolster our defences against other, more subtle, attacks against our privacy. While this may be true indirectly, the entire point of a ‘red-herring’ is that it serves as a distraction. Our attention is focused on it in order to direct conversation away from the other pernicious attempts to exploit our personal information. I think the term that’s more appropriate here is the ‘canary in the coal mine’. Let’s acknowledge the herrings but focus on the dead canaries.

I hope I didn’t drone on too much.


Drones and Luddites


‘Drones’: so hot right now! They film your wedding and then get shipped overseas for the next airstrike in the Middle East. Can you imagine a ‘Drone’ sitcom? “Meet Buzz: at night, he’s a deadly assassin in the covert ops. But in this economy, he’s gotta pay the bills. Can this hot cadet deliver the perfect shot for his next wedding gig?”

Where did the term ‘drone’ even come from? I did some research, and the word itself seems to originate from the 1930s, when U.S. Navy commander Delmer Fahrney was asked by an admiral to develop a remote-controlled aircraft similar to the British ‘Queen Bee’. As a homage to the British name, Fahrney named these aircraft ‘drones’ after the male honeybees whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen (which is where the term ‘to drone on’ originally comes from).

Before we delve too much into this topic, it’s important to emphasize that the term ‘drone’ is as specific as the term ‘car’ – probably even less so. When I think of ‘drones’, I think of essentially toy helicopter-like flying vehicles that have some autonomous capability but are largely human-piloted and weigh less than a few kilograms and cost no more than a few thousand dollars. Other people may think of the ‘MQ-9 Reaper’ , the ‘hunter-killer drone’, which costs $16.9 million and can weigh almost 5 tons.

When we’re talking about surveillance, we’ll probably be talking about the smaller of these UAVs: things like the DJI Phantom 2 (probably the most popular commercial drone for filming). Anything significantly bigger than that will not be able able to fly close enough to the ground without significant noise and safety risks – which are a concern even for these smaller drones. The Phantom 2 has an advertised flight time of 25 minutes before the battery needs to be replaced or recharged. I would bet that this is actually closer to 15-20 minutes in realistic outdoor conditions. So, right away, before we can even discuss privacy concerns, the efficiency of these types of vehicles needs to be greatly improved for them to pose a threat that other, pilot-operated vehicles do not.

In many respects, I think ‘drones’ are a red-herring with respect to privacy concerns. They are flying robots that are easy to visualize and fear, but they distract away from the much more subtle, pernicious technologies that pose much greater risks to our privacy. What about smartphones, email, Facebook? Surely our private emails and pictures are more important than videos of public demonstrations or images of outdoor events like the one you linked to? What about already existing closed-circuit cameras? George Orwell’s home nation now boasts 1 camera for every 11 citizens .

This brings me to the title of this post: Luddites. To be a ‘luddite’ is now synonymous with being ignorant of some form of technology or innovation. This stems from a group of English factory workers who rebelled against forms of autonomous machinery that threatened to take over many jobs in textile plants in the early 19th century. Interestingly, many economists believe the fundamental Luddite concern is a fallacy, the appropriately named Luddite Fallacy, which wrongly equates new forms of technology with job destruction and economic downturn. In fact, the late 19th century was an incredibly productive time in Britain precisely because of the machines the Luddites rebelled against. Technology can of course automate-away many jobs, but it can also create jobs in other, often unexpected, industries (who would have thought ‘data scientist’ would be an in-demand position 30 years ago?). With that said, there are now pressing concerns about the current digital revolution and how the new wave of automation will affect our society and its widening income-gap.

When we talk about privacy, the important question for me is how do we stray away from Luddite-esque fears of conspicuous technological advances while still ensuring that we are cognizant of subtle, subversive attempts at governmental oversight?


NFC Podcast #5: C1 Cycling and Free Will

In this podcast, we pose the question: should athletes be allowed to consumer PED’s to make athletics more fair?

Performance Matching Drugs


We don’t want to be too self-congratulatory in these posts, but I’d like to take the chance to give you some ‘mad props’ for a well-written piece of prose. The free-will continuum you outlined is an insightful idea that may be an effective way to gradually shift society towards a more ego-free, contextual understanding of human behaviour. That said, I’m still convinced that the fundamental insight that we do not possess free will does not, and should not, lead to a dystopian society.

Take, for instance, your average Joe. You say he will blame himself less for committing a crime, and I agree, as he should! For certain psychopaths (the severely broken clocks) this may lead to a feeling of complete freedom (ironically): they can commit whatever heinous crime they want to because it’s not their ‘fault’. But these are exactly the type of people we should lock away! Good ol’ average Joe is not going to do this, and if he finds himself ‘at the wrong time, at the wrong place’, his reduced feeling of guilt may actually lead to a speedier recovery and a smoother transition back into society.

Further, an important point here is one you bring up, but then sweep under the rug: practicality. The free-will shift you outline would be incredibly hard to implement practically. How can you possibly understand and categorize all the different factors that affect an individual’s actions? Clearly we can’t have separate entities that deal with different classes of people. Imagine: ‘immigrant courts’, ‘courts that deal with the top 1%’, ‘athlete courts’, ‘IQ > 120 courts’ etc.? Clearly, lumping people together like this has serious ethical repercussions. I think simply acknowledging the fact that all humans have a questionable amount, if any, ‘free will’ is a much more egalitarian and digestible way to effect change in the justice system.

Finally, I come to the reason we started talking about free will: doping! How deliciously ironic is it that taking ‘performance enhancing drugs’ can actually level the playing field for athletes! Kudos for finding this quote: it’s quite obvious in retrospect. Instead of continuing the never ending cat-mouse game of drug testing vs. drug masking, perhaps sport federations should simply use drugs to standardize a certain level of blood chemistry for all athletes: ‘performance matching drugs’ if you will.

Let’s push this further: imagine a world where all athletes are identical, a world where weight, height and muscle mass are all standardized. A perfectly fair, equalized world. This is the inevitable conclusion of this type of reasoning, isn’t it? Yet I can’t help but imagine this world as a bleak, depressing Orwellian dystopia. Should we then forget about levelling the playing field, and regress back into the comforting world of motivational speeches and inspiring quotes? I don’t think so. Perhaps in the sporting world, your ‘free-will shift’ would be most useful. Officials need to be more open to other types of ‘unfair factors’ that could provide clear advantages to athletes (apart from simply chemical compounds). They need to better characterize individuals and create more finely structured levels of competition (similar to those found in boxing, for instance). Can we do this without crossing too many ethical lines? I think this certainly stands a better chance than the justice system.

The world is confusing and unfair: if sport can be a true respite, we need to be more honest about our own understanding of what it means to be an individual, and what parts of our life we are truly ‘responsible’ for.