Why?

This month I started an online course in Artificial Intelligence. I also recently met, quite randomly at a bar, a gentleman much more technically minded than myself, who is also taking the course. He asked me recently:

I’m curious, what’s gotten you interested in following this class? Is it your apparent love of scifi, or something else?


To which I replied:

Hmmm….what’s gotten me interested? You realise my answer to this question is going to become a blog post…

Last night I went to see Daniel Clowes and Seth, two comic book illustrators, speak at their joint book launch. My daughter asked me: “Why are you going?” and I had to actually think for a moment: why, indeed? I had one of Daniel Clowes earlier books, and knew little of Seth, yet I was still making an effort to go to this reading. I’m a casual illustrated book reader, hardly hardcore, and then I realised, simply, that I enjoy immersing myself in things I know nothing about.

The most often asked question to me is: “Who is your favourite band/musician?” or “What are you listening to?” And my answer is invariably: “I don’t listen to music.” I don’t. And I don’t mean to sound presumptuous or pretentious or holier-than-thou, but being immersed in the music industry for the past decade has made me a non-believer in music. Only a tiny margin of music is real anymore, the rest are just feeble attempts at fame, fortune, or worse, relevancy. I rarely listen to new music because all I hear is…dishonesty.

But it *would* be pretentious so live a life without culture, so I’ve turned my focus elsewhere. I’ve started reading books again, and writing fiction. And I enjoy these two tasks immensely. As I write, especially, I learn: my choice to write “genre” fiction is no accident. In speculative and science fictions I see open space, pure freedom, a world without restraint. I fold in to my work things I read about technology, computing, medical advances, space exploration and robotics. I feel that in researching this stuff and reading about it, a new frame of mind is being revealed. A fresh perspective of the world spurts forth, a new community of people working and thinking… not to be “cool” but to be, essentially, creative.

I miss that about music, which is why I’ve taken this step in the opposite direction. It doesn’t mean I’m done with being in a band or making records at all. If anything I will only return with resolve and a fervent dedication that should be feared by the entire hipster set.

So….does this answer the question? Kind of. I’m really digging the way my brain is being pulled by being in the ai-class, forced to think pragmatically and logically. Embracing new terminology and honing mathematical and deductive skills. My past will reveal that I was a big nerd. My dad is an electrical engineer. I was in “Gifted” in grade school. I took Computer Science class in grade 11. I took enriched math and wrote nation-wide math competitions. I was never the “cool” kid, and I never felt threatened by the “in” crowd. I made friends from strangers through BBS‘ and the first computer I bought was the first generation clamshell iBook…dare I say…before it was cool. If I hadn’t decided to move to Montreal at the age of 18, I would have been in “New Media” at Ryerson. A technical school. One of my favourite movies OF ALL TIME is Terminator 2.

I guess with this free, online course from a reputable university came up I just said to myself: “Why not?”

GeekMom: Focus on Maths

This morning I came up with the ultimate parenting strategy: instill the force (of nerdiness) within your child. I’ve always wanted to get my daughter into science and math, engaging the everychild’s wonderment of the world. Literally everything that surrounds us contains science content. Everything. I defy you to come up with something (action, item, emotion, thought, colour, food, etc.) that cannot be informed by even a simple nugget of scientific or mathematical knowledge.

Lately around here, our daughter has been obsessed with colours and mixing them to create new colours. I get asked about four times a day: “What does….red and…purple make?” It’s been a serious Pantone challenge, let me tell you. Especially when she gets nuanced, asking for the result of three or four colours combined. Constellations and galaxies are a new one, and bath time has become an exercise in bouyancy vs. surface tension.

As my child enters the public school system this fall, I can’t help think maniacally about all the variables she will encounter, all the things totally beyond my control that will shape her into an inevitably pain-filled teenager: friends, bullies, frenemies, teachers, and the stuffs of learning itself.

I found the catch-all: mathematics. People who are capable at math are like the Vulcans of the Earth. Wikipedia describes Vuclans as a “humanoid species” who “live by reason and logic with no interference from emotion.” And I think: YES. What better interpersonal coping skills than pure logic? Math and even basic principles of physics both lay this groundwork down, with the idea that there are fundamentals that cannot be questioned. You just don’t mess with logic.

CHILD: “Should I start smoking?”
VULCAN REASONING : “No, that would be harmful to my physical well-being, and thus survival.”

CHILD: “Should I skip class?”
VULCAN REASONING: “That would be against protocol.”

CHILD: “Should I partake in spitballing the bathroom ceiling? All the other kids are doing it and it looks like lots of fun.”
VULCAN REASONING: “This activity poses a scheduling conflict with computer science class.”

Etc, etc. In my schooling years, I had no interest in being cool. I was not cool, though kept a handful of close friends. We would be not cool together. I was in Gifted class in grade school, a place where we went to play Below the Root and solve Logic Problems. In high school I wrote national math competitions (I didn’t stand a change against Ko-Hua Chu, a peer who, rumour has it, stormed out of class for only scoring 99% on a math test). My parents had a Commodore 64 at home, and me and my sister would get with those books that had the pages of BASIC programs you could type in to make your computer do stupid shit. Like repeat a word on the screen until you hit a button, or do math, or load a game on casette tape. That was such a discovery, beyond just spending hours trying to finish that Bruce Lee game.

I’m trying not to make this about me, but about how my childhood could relate to my daughter’s. The other day Murray, Neptune and I were watching our first David Tennant episode of Dr. Who. And even though Neptune said she didn’t like it, she could not take her eyes off the TV for the duration of the episode. I recall my dad watching Dr. Who, and have kept in my memory the quirkiness of the Tom Baker (the best, IMHO), Peter Davison and Colin Baker-era doctors. I must have been around 10 when this was going on. Why did I love it so much? Because it was simply around? What was going on in other people’s houses that made me so predisposed to geekery, and other kids so into, well, clothing?

Therein lay the mysteries of western parenting. Now ask yourself: do you want to raise a Mischa Barton or Bill Gates? There is no wrong answer.

Were Our Lives More Science-y in the 80’s?

I was thinking today about science, and how curious I was about things when I was a kid. I always wanted to mix the baking soda and vinegar together when no one was watching (just little bits at a time). I would invent things, take things apart, and my sister and I would burn stuff in our “play hibachi,” just to see what would happen. My dad is in science, and we could rely on Nova, The Nature of Things or Dr. Who being on TV at some point during the evening.

Anyway, whilst on the internet today I saw an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy. I then remembered the whole Bill Nye vs. Beakman’s World debacle, with Bill Nye firmly out-geeking Beakman’s screwball laboratory hijinks (Disney always wins such battles). Next was a flurry of memories of how important science was in the 80’s. Like back then we really thought the future was going to be the bomb. People were building robots and we had computers (Commodore 64, bitches) in our homes. But was I unusually into science or was science just more mainstream?

There were definitely more science shows for kids. What do we have now that makes learning fun? Zoboomafoo? Mythbusters? There’s all the programming on DiscoveryKids and Bill Nye is still slugging it out. But shows about trashy tweens seem to be more in the mainstream. Science just isn’t as cool as it used to be. All these memories of stuff I was really into in the 80’s came to mind:

TV
David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, Nova (both still on the air), Owl/TV (theme song), Mr. Wizard’s World, Beakman’s World, Bill Nye The Science Guy, Edison Twins (couldn’t resist), 321 Contact (also, rad theme), Wonderstruck, Dr. Who…and my fave show that we watched as a family: Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course.

MOVIES
Weird Science, War Games, Short Circuit, The Fly, *Batteries Not Included, Cocoon, never mind crazy sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars, E.T. and Close Encounters.

These days we take science for granted: we are tethered to the internet via tiny computing devices, and the digital word has replaced most analogue forms of communication. As a kid in Toronto, the best school field trip of all time was to the Science Centre. I mean, I was into learning about binary code and tectonic plates when I got there. I would also try and get my parents to take me downtown just so I could hit up Science City, the nerdiest store at Bay/Bloor Village (and which, to my total surprise, STILL EXISTS). They always had experiments or fun gadgets that I inadvertently learned stuff from. Like that little plastic threaded tube that connects two 2L soda bottles and acts as a giant tornado maker! Or light-sensitive paper that you put shit on top of and leave out in the sun and create cool silhouettes!

Did I have friends? As I recall, I did have some serious BFFs, but my memories are continually making me out to be a serious nerd. Quality, not quantity, I guess.

Science of Music vs. Martin Amis

During a moment spent not freaking out about Facebook removing my civil e-liberties, or analyzing the weird dreams I had last night about ordering an Americano coffee in NYC, I read a compelling book review in the Economist. The last paragraph struck me:

“[The] basic message is encouraging and uplifting: people know much more about music than they think. They start picking up the rules from the day they are born, perhaps even before, by hearing it all around them. Very young children can tell if a tune or harmony is not quite right. One of the joys of listening to music is a general familiarity with the way it is put together: to know roughly what to expect, then to see in what particular ways your expectations will be met or exceeded. Most adults can differentiate between kinds of music even if they have had no training.

Music is completely sui generis. It should not tell a non-musical story; the listener will decode it for himself. Many, perhaps most, people have experienced a sudden rush of emotion on hearing a particular piece of music; a thrill or chill, a sense of excitement or exhilaration, a feeling of being swept away by it. They may even be moved to tears, without being able to tell why. Musical analysts have tried hard to find out how this happens, but with little success. Perhaps some mysteries are best preserved.”

The book is The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It by Philip Ball. And while I probably will never read it, this abstract does offer some interesting thoughts, like: Why does music even exist? Why does it make us feel? Maybe if I read the book some of these questions would be answered. But I so rarely read analog media (Economist excluded).

AND their review of the new Martin Amis book was pretty intriguing…for a Martin Amis fan. His best since Money? Come on.

SCIENCE!

2010 might more approproately be described as the year for Science. Presently, we are all waiting with bated breath for the Apple tablet announcement, right? We can only hope that that shit will be useful. At least that’s what I hope. Or maybe because I am embroiled in the writing of the greatest sci-fi story of all time, or because my peers send me shit like this:

Or because Murray is re-watching episodes of LOST. Or because my Twitter idols are 1) a former TNG actor (@wilw), 2) fake TV scientists (@grantimahara (probably a real scientist), @donttrythis (definitely fake)), and 3) the first dude to tweet from space (@Astro_TJ).

Or all of the above. Science – factual and fictional – is on my mind.

Next week, I have to enroll my kid in public school. I recently noted to Murray: “You know, if Neptune doesn’t learn basic HTML code at school by the age of 16 then there is something seriously wrong with the world.” And I am totally serious. I think every literate person in North America below the age of 30 should know, at least, how to code a link in HTML. That’s probably why I let (and encourage) my 4-year-old watch BSG, Star Trek, and Star Wars with us. Better that than the news. SRSLY.

There’s hope in fantasy, in a better society, in a place where money has been eliminated and people seek power for power’s sake (or usually because they didn’t get enough hugs when they were growing up…AND they really, really, really have it out for Captain Kirk). Hugs can go a long way. Hugs lead to love. Love leads to loving yourself. Loving yourself leads to self-confidence, which leads to self-empowerment, which leads to hope.

Under the expert counsel of @sebby_g via an impromptu Facebook chat, I was instructed to watch Zeitgeist. Albeit about five years after that shit was hot. I watched Zeitgeist: The Movie which, once you get past the first 20 minutes, was neat. But not – in my mind – revolutionary: I am already skeptical of organizations, institutions, corporations, major labels, religion, government, etc. I know money is evil. I know most people don’t question the things they do each day. I grew up on Street Cents feat. Jonathan Torrens. My step-dziadzia used to feed us host wafers (aka ‘ostie) and ginger ale as a snack. My grandmother used to read the newspaper, decrying and denouncing…basically, um…everything she read. She hated politicians, especially. Mine was a totally secular, speculative upbringing.

Also, I moved out of my bubble that was the town (Toronto) in which I grew up. I think it’s really important to shake your life at its foundation at some point: either by choice or by consequence. Move away from the comforts of home, take a leap of faith, knowing it is only yourself that is waiting at the bottom to catch you.

Get it? Anyway. There’s so much more to say. I should continue this thought later. In the meanwhile, check out The Venus Project.

Entering Nerdshire

A series of recent events caused me to realise that they should create a variation of the term “grupster” that incorporates the word “nerd”. While “negrupster” connotes a black grupster, and “grupsterd” sounds like it belongs in a toilet, I contemplated “grerdrupster” before giving up on trying to pigeonhole my already complex identity any further.

So what events could possibly lead to this assumption? First: a childlike glee that I experienced after learning that the latest title I purchased for my Nintendo DS was really quite enjoyable. And that I was looking forward to playing “Professor Layton and the Curious Village” through to the end.

Next, due to weeks of rainy days and thus a listless, playground-deprived daughter, I decided to try the Centre des sciences de Montreal. I have such fond memories of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, what with all the buttons and things to touch, ancient Chinese xylophones and that model train that drove through tunnels between two glass display cases. And the running. There were bridges to jump on and technicolour replicas of my shadow to be made. Anyhow, the Centre des sciences is much newer, smaller and a little less in-depth. There’s still a lot going on in there, but nothing recommended for toddlers. They literally told me to not bother buying an admission. So we went to see the river and a pond in the rain, got a giant lollipop and went home. I love science but I guess not that much.

Finally, and most awesomely, was that I posted a comment on an article on Wired.com’s Listening Post blog and the author (Scott Thill) knew who The Dears were. That blew my mind; it was really rad and made my day. I read Wired.com every day, so it was like we were exchanging a knowing nod: yes, nerds and music can co-exist…as they must…

Then, after all this I met up with my misanthropic pal Michael, who completely de-asserted my nerdness. This was after I admitted to him that I hadn’t read a science fiction novel in years. And that I had never read (nor had I seen) “Dune.” He recommended I read “Valis” by Philip K. Dick and call him in the morning. I felt ashamed and unworthy of my admittedly hasty claim to the “grerdrupster” title — even though he was totally right.

I’m a little bit of a nerd at heart, and at least that I can be proud of.