Singapore

I’m in Singapore. I’ve been here for a week. I … really can’t figure out what to say.

I was here for a conference, at a convention center that’s attached to a giant upscale mall. That seems to be a common theme here: there’s more than one such place.

Singapore is incredibly British. Everything is in English and everyone speaks English that ranges from excellent to native. But it’s not just that. For one thing, it’s very Christian in a very English way. There are two churches on this block, the old-fashioned kind with a steeple, one with columns and the other (built in 1841) with gorgeous stained glass in all the windows. I saw a couple walking in in a dark suit and white dress, when the bells were ringing on Sunday morning.

There are also other signs of Britishness, like the double-deck buses, or the occasional London-style black cab. What’s really British, though, is the amount of Christmas.

In the US, Christmas shopping starts on Black Friday. It is traditional for Americans to complain about the Entire Month of Nonstop Christmas, with carols playing over the PA systems in all the stores. We should be grateful: in Singapore, in the absence of a fall-holiday firewall, Christmas starts November 1st.

The malls are all decorated to high heaven with boughs and ornaments and giant green cones that are supposed to be Christmas trees. Because, of course, we’re thousands of miles from the nearest Douglas Fir. It’s 90 degrees and 100% humidity outside, every day year-round. We are in the tropics of Southeast Asia here. Oh, and the Christmas carols are here too. I’ve heard most of the classics already, definitely Noel, Jingle Bells (!!), and White Christmas (!!!).

It’s so weird.

At least it’s not completely everywhere. I walked over to Little India after the conference was over today, and there was a clear and rapid shift, from Timberland and Nine West and Victoria’s Secret in the air-conditioned corridors, to tiny owner-operated storefronts selling everything from pasta to pianos. (That very cute store was about 1.5 pianos wide, with floor-to-ceiling shelves of sheet music all the way around.) Then in Little India, everything was “Sarees” and gold. No sign of Christmas.

On the way back I spotted a Chinese-Christian church, built in a modern style. It made me think that other areas of the city might a little different, with some actual local culture. Not here. As a friend pointed out, if you dropped an American from into this district, it could easily take them a full day to figure out that they weren’t in Los Angeles (or maybe Honolulu).

Maybe that’s really what Singapore is about. It’s a bite-sized portion of high-grade Anglo culture, in a part of the world where that is in high demand and short supply. I can understand why that might appeal, if you’re living in Kuala Lumpur or even Seoul. If you’re in the USA … you could probably just visit your local mall at Christmastime instead.

Natural Science Fiction

I recently saw a movie with the following basic plot. A mad physicist has been working on a groundbreaking android, a humanoid robot, in the form of a beautiful young woman. He refers to her as his daughter, and names her “Olympia”. Just as he is putting on the finishing touches, a lovelorn student arrives at his laboratory, and learns of this “daughter”. The student is lonely, and very interested in meeting Olympia, but he catches only a glimpse.

The physicist’s former collaborator, lurking outside the laboratory, bumps into the student, and agrees to sell him a pair of augmented-reality glasses that offer superhuman visual acuity, night-vision, etc. The student starts wearing these glasses around, amazed at his new perception of the world. Unbeknownst to him, the glasses have special features connected to the android, making Olympia appear to be a living human girl. At her debut performance, Olympia sings and dances beautifully, and the student falls in love with her, although the rest of the audience can see the mechanical malfunctions and battery life issues. Eventually, the student dances with Olympia, and confesses his love to her, but her “father” takes her away before he can get a reply.

That night, the physicist and his former collaborator fight over the ownership of Olympia. They cannot agree on who is the rightful owner, and by morning they have destroyed the android rather than share credit for its creation.

The student arrives the next day to propose to Olympia, and is horrified to discover that she has been destroyed, and was never real after all.

You might reasonably complain that this movie seems somewhat derivative. It sounds an awful lot like the plot of Her, or especially Ex Machina, or probably half the episodes of Westworld. It’s practically cliche, except for one thing.

This is not a movie. This is Act I of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a French opera from 1851. The plot is a slightly simplified but mostly unaltered version of Der Sandmann, an 1816 short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. (We saw it at the Met, in a grand production featuring Erin Morley as an amazingly robotic Olympia.)

This story is 200 years old. OK, the original libretto doesn’t use the words “android” or “augmented reality”, but how could it? The original libretto is in French!

Today we tell these stories because they are almost plausible. We have early prototypes of all the relevant technologies (humanoid robots, augmented reality glasses, realistic rendering of human faces). We already have hints at the kinds of social problems that might result from young men obsessing with simulated women, rather than actual people.

But this tale is from 1816. ├śrsted had not yet discovered that electricity is related to magnetism. There were no passenger trains, and no trains at all outside of England. The best concrete in the world was still not nearly as good as the Romans’.

Maybe some people are just far-sighted … or maybe there is a trick to predicting the future: focus on flawed human nature. Human nature is unchanging, and technology advances as needed to enable our worst vices and expose our deepest faults.

JOCO

I saw Jonathan Coulton live! Somehow I came into possession of a couple of comped tickets to his show during New York Comic-Con, and we decided it was worth the trek out to Brooklyn.

I was a little surprised. Jonathan Coulton’s studio tracks are often backed by intriguing electronica or heavy rock beats, but live he was purely acoustic (almost…)

Like a lot of people, the first JoCo track I heard was Code Monkey. It was the first time I heard a song for nerds that wasn’t entirely a joke. That turns out to be JoCo’s specialty. The other JoCo songs I knew well (apart from Chiron Beta Prime, a scifi Christmas Carol) were IKEA, Re: Your Brains, All This Time, Still Alive, and First of May (which I’m not going to link; you can find it on your own if you must).

I figured that like most established artists, JoCo would play some old songs for the fans, and some new ones to promote the new album, and indeed that’s what happened. What I didn’t expect is that he would sing every single one of the songs I knew. The audience sang along, being full of people who, like me, have been listening to them on repeat for the last 10 years.

Of the new music, the one that really stuck with me was Brave, which he described as being about “an internet troll who lives in his mother’s basement and is really broken inside”. (Well, that and Mr. Fancypants, on a bat’leth Zendrum LT.)

As always, Paul and Storm opened the show. They’re truly musical comedians; JoCo seems sincere and plaintive by comparison. I think my favorite song of theirs was Opening Band, which might also have been their least jokey number.

Changes

When I started this blog, it was 2004, and I was heading to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where bandwidth that didn’t go through the college’s proxy was charged by the megabyte. I started running WordPress on my laptop, but for efficiency I would scrape a static copy locally, rsync it to my home directory at MIT, and serve it statically there.

Since then I’ve gone through a number of hosting solutions: sometimes a box hidden somewhere in my parents’ house, sometimes a computer that was also serving as the DVD player and sound system for my roommates and me. For the past four years, it’s been an Atom-powered desktop wedged into some dusty corner, and doubling as my wifi router. A couple years ago the power supply fan died, and I fixed it with duct tape.

Amazingly, it’s still working, but part of maturity is recognizing when to put away childish things before they really become a problem. In its latest location, perched over the stove in the kitchen, sucking in oil vapors, this arrangement was likely to go up in flames, possibly literally. We already found ourselves needing two wifi networks due to Windows compatibility issues, and that was creating its own headaches. When living alone, this was an annoyance, but now that I’m responsible for two people’s internet access, sometimes for work purposes, it’s critical.

So starting today, this blog is hosted on an honest-to-goodness cloud server (on Google Compute Engine). In a way, this is the end of my campaign for a decentralized internet, and the beginning of grown-up-style website deployment. I still hope that We of the Internet will figure out how to decentralize the internet some day, but for now, for me, the overhead of hardware operation and the risk of data loss are too high. (It doesn’t hurt that Compute Engine has a free usage tier that is fine for this purpose.)

Of course, there have also been some major changes in my life over the past few years, with the result that I increasingly have better things to do with my time than maintain flaky hardware and write backup script cron jobs. So this change marks a wonderful turning point: a life too full of joy and excitement to make everything into a high-maintenance hobby project.

ECLIPSE

I saw the eclipse!

It wasn’t easy. I flew out to Colorado to meet my brother, and then we all drove up to the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, through endless pastures and fields of sunflowers, plus plenty of empty land and the occasional geological portent. On an average Monday it would have taken a bit over three hours; it took us six, along with all the countless thousands of other enthusiasts winding through those two-lane roads.

We got there with half an hour to spare, in perfect sunshine. At half-eclipse, it still felt like any other bright summer day, but around 90%, things began to change. The shadows grew strangely sharper, and the light felt oddly blue compared to normal dusky twilight. Insects really did begin to chirp as if at nightfall.

Then, in a moment, totality. The horizon was ringed by impossibly pink sunset, planets were visible, and the moon appeared as a perfect black circle at the top of a navy blue sky.

People say it’s just sheer luck that the apparent size of the sun and moon are so nearly the same, so that eclipses are possible but exceedingly rare. There’s another lucky coincidence of sorts that’s less discussed: the solar corona is exactly the right brightness for appreciation by the human eye. Too bright, like the sun, and you wouldn’t be able to even look at it; much dimmer and it might be hard to see.

From Goshen County, Wyoming, just north of Lingle, the corona looked like a four-tailed white flame, frozen in time. Through standard binoculars, laminar striations were visible, reinforcing the sense of fire. A candle flame taller than a hundred earths, in perfect lily white.

And then, it was over. Two minutes of shock, and then back on the road.

Pictures here, including a spherical VR timelapse movie(!), and the grand finale courtesy of my brother.

Spamilton

I haven’t seen Hamilton, and at this rate I’ll probably have to wait for another 5 years or so, but I’ve heard the soundtrack all the way through multiple times, and I’m a big enough fan to appreciate a parody, like Spamilton.

Spamilton seems to float around, but at the moment it’s playing at the (confusingly stationary but otherwise fitting) Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, which is right by our house. The theater is like Broadway in miniature, two tiers but only ten seats across, with brick walls that look like this might have once been an alleyway.

At the end of an awful week, on a rainy evening, Spamilton was just the thing to lighten the mood. Ostensibly, it’s a story of the rise to fame of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, set to the tune of Hamilton. That ends up being about 30% of the show; the remainder samples and skewers every Broadway hit (and a few flops) since Rogers and Hammerstein, with a breadth of commentary to match.

The show’s writing is clever, sometimes too clever for me to understand (like the deep references to second-tier Sondheim shows). The funny thing about this show, though, is that the jokes are not the best part; it’s the cast, whose impressions of the Hamilton songs, even with silly lyrics, are good enough for understudy roles at the very least. They’re so good that their parodies of sad songs will make you cry anyway. (Nicole Ortiz, who plays all three Schuyler sisters, is particularly amazing.)

A theme throughout the production is Broadway’s inescapable arc of popularity: a meteoric rise, and then a long slow slide from today’s hot ticket into yesterday’s fad. Much fun is poked at neverending “tourist trap” productions like Phantom and Wicked, but Spamilton itself might be a bellwether, airborne only while Hamilton is stratospheric.

At our Friday evening show, the small theater was much less than half full, not a positive sign. If Spamilton is running out of steam, it might be a sign that Hamilton is falling back to earth.

Net Positive

To find out what to do in New York City, I usually follow The Skint, which is full of fun cheap cultural stuff that’s happening around the city. Usually it’s Just Weird Enough, and sometimes it’s spot on … like last night, when it mentioned Net Positive, a screening of independent short films relevant to the politics of and on the internet.

It was held at Industry City, a pair of factory buildings that have been renovated into a lively and artistic space for startups and other hip companies. To get there, we had to walk through a pretty gritty stretch of Brooklyn and under an elevated highway, but once inside, the restaurants and courtyard were gorgeous at sunset.

The films were largely dystopian, in different ways. Somehow dystopia is easier than celebration, in a short.

The highest-budget production was probably HYPER-REALITY, which seems like an all-too-believable vision of an Augmented Reality future, for the sorts of people whose phones are full of crapware because they can’t afford a Pixel (or an iPhone). I feel like I might need to watch it again, more than once, to catch all of the stuff that’s going on; its incredibly high information density matches its vision of an overloaded future.

Conversely, the least expensive production, and probably the most ethereal, was Project X, a movie about a building that was also the subject of a blog post I wrote in 2011. Of course, in 2011, we didn’t yet know that this building housed not only AT&T networking equipment but also NSA wiretapping gear, which is the subject of the film.

Summer in the city … it’s amazing.

Prague

I’m in Prague! For the first three or four days I was just around the conference hotel, which is nice but not especially Czech. But then last night I walked around Real Old Prague.

Proof.

It’s … I have no knowledge of Prague or Czechia, no associations or cultural connection. All I can do is sort of boggle, and compare it to places I’ve been before. It feels kind of like the old sections of Paris but … bigger? Wider streets, bigger plazas. Maybe it’s actually not that old, just built in a very beautiful old style?

I really know nothing, but it’s pretty! And full of tourists, but I can’t very well complain about that.