Tom Moody - Miscellaneous

Tom Moody - Miscellaneous Posts

These posts are either "jump pages" for my weblog or posts-in-process that will eventually appear there. For what it's worth, here's an archive of these random bits. The picture to the left is by a famous comic book artist.

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What the Monkeys Can Teach Humans About Making America Fairer

Give a capuchin monkey a cucumber slice, and she will eagerly trade a small pebble for it. But when a second monkey, in an adjoining cage, receives a more-desirable grape for the same pebble, it changes everything. The first monkey will then reject her cucumber, and sometimes throw it out of the cage. Monkeys rarely refuse food, but in this case they appear to be pursuing an even higher value than eating: fairness.

The capuchin monkey study, published last week in Nature, has generated a lot of interest for a scant three-page report buried in the journal's letters section. There is, certainly, a risk of reading too much into the feeding habits of 10 research monkeys. But in a week when fairness was so evidently on the ropes — from the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancϊn, which poor nations walked out of in frustration, to the latest issue of Forbes, reporting that the richest 400 Americans are worth $955 billion — the capuchin monkeys offered a glimmer of hope from the primate gene pool.

The study's implication that we are, to some extent, hard-wired for fairness speaks with special force to the legal system. American law has undergone a transformation in recent years, led by conservative Supreme Court justices and scholars, away from a focus on broad principles of fairness and toward a willingness to subject people to treatment that might be unjust, on the grounds that it is legal. The monkey study suggests, however, that fairness might be more than a currently unfashionable legal concept. It may be integral to who we are.

Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, chose capuchin monkeys because capuchins are among the few primates — along with men and chimpanzees — that hunt cooperatively. Team hunting has evolutionary advantages, allowing a species to capture prey, like squirrels, it otherwise could not. In many monkey societies the dominant male eats what he wants, and the others fight over the scraps. But in societies like those of capuchins — and humans — in which hunting is done cooperatively, food is more equitably distributed.

The reason for the sharing is obvious. Cooperative primates will be reluctant to engage in a group hunt if they cannot be assured that their reward will be properly related to their efforts. The capuchin monkeys in the study did not care merely about rules: it was not enough that they were given a cucumber slice when that was what they expected. They also wanted the rule that was applied to them to be, in a larger sense, fair.

What role an inherent, human sense of fairness should play in the law is a critical issue today. In the "rights revolution" of the 1960's, the Supreme Court found broad fairness principles throughout the Constitution — strong rights to equal protection and due process, for example, and an expansive notion of what it means to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. The court brought these fairness principles to every corner of society, from schools, to prisons, to welfare offices.

Today, in law's eternal battle between strictly applied rules and broader principles of fairness, the pendulum is rapidly swinging back toward strict rules. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court considered the case of Leandro Andrade, a father of three who, because of California's harsh "three strikes and you're out" law, was sentenced to 50 years to life for stealing $153.54 worth of videotapes. The court's four liberals protested the unfairness of the sentence, arguing in dissent that if it was not "grossly disproportionate" to the crime, and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment's bar on cruel and unusual punishment, "the principle has no meaning." But the court's five-justice conservative majority concluded, in effect, that rules are rules, and that the sentence "was not an unreasonable application of our clearly established law."

In death penalty cases, criminal appeals, discrimination suits, the conservative majority regularly shows an indifference to the sort of fairness claims that would have prevailed in the 1960's. Lower federal court judges are also engaged in heated battles between rules and broader fairness principles, notably over the federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines can pressure judges to impose sentences that, given the facts of a particular case, would result in unfairness. But the Justice Department, egged on by Republicans in Congress, is collecting data on judges who give lighter sentences than the guidelines recommend, which critics say could be used to create a blacklist.

Legal philosophers have long debated whether there is such a thing as natural law — higher principles of fairness that trump the rules enacted by man — and if so, from where it is derived. To natural law proponents like St. Augustine, who said an unjust law is no law at all, the answer was God. The capuchin monkey study suggests, however, that part of the answer may be biological. It hints that, as Mr. de Waal puts it, "a lot of the notions we use in our moral systems are much older than our species."

None of this, of course, means human society is destined to be fair. We are also hard-wired for competition and aggression. And we have a tendency to establish societies in which, as Shakespeare observed, "to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly." But the capuchin monkey study suggests that fairness is at least part of the mix of traits that go with being human — and that over time, higher notions of justice that look beyond mechanical application of rigid rules may have a fighting chance.

In Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," an ape-man throws a bone he has just used as a weapon into the air and it is transformed into a spaceship. The discovery of weapons was certainly, as the movie indicates, one of our key evolutionary moments. But the capuchin monkey study is a welcome reminder that the first time an ape-man angrily picked up his food allotment and threw it into the air because it was unjust was no less pivotal to the emergence of what it means to be human.

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- tom moody 9-21-2003 7:28 pm [link] [add a comment]

A Light Show Beyond Lasers

For decades, planetariums and science centers have mixed their offerings of instructive starscapes and educational films with more fanciful fare: laser shows customarily set to thunderous rock music. But in these times of computer-generated special effects and home entertainment centers with theater-quality sound systems, even lasers may be starting to show their age.

So early next month in Manhattan, the Hayden Planetarium will be turning its own supercomputer power to a new use: creating and projecting audiovisual tricks light years beyond the colorful straight lines that characterize most laser shows.

"SonicVision," which is to open on Oct. 3, is 35 minutes of soaring, churning and immersive visualizations set to a thumping score of techno-electronica and contemporary rock mixed by the recording artist Moby. A recent test screening revealed vast, surreal three-dimensional visions that morphed back and forth from the purely abstract - a kind of kinetic, cosmic tie-dye - to whirling wheeled machines, seas of blinking human eyes, architectural forms and optical puns. All of it is computer-generated and none of it involves lasers.

"As wonderful as the laser shows were, they weren't appropriate for a planetarium in the 21st century," said Myles Gordon, the vice president for education of the American Museum of Natural History, which houses the Hayden, part of the Rose Center for Earth and Space. "How do we harness the technology and advances that have been made in projection, sound and production over the last 30 years?"

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden, agreed that laser shows have not aged well. "The novelty of that as a technology is not really there anymore," he said. "Now you can buy a laser at the checkout counter at Kmart."

Much of the wow factor of the three-year-old planetarium, which replaced the original 1935 building, is supplied by a supercomputer that, among other attributes, harnesses 118 microprocessors. (The typical home computer has only one.)

Housed in two air-conditioned rooms adjoining the planetarium, the system can manage as much as nine terabytes of data - about 13 times the typical file size of a two-hour feature film projected digitally in a commercial theater.

The system is tied to two 24-channel digital audio players, hundreds of speakers and seven ultra-high-resolution video projectors trained on the inside of the planetarium's dome, which has a surface area of more than 6,500 square feet, planetarium officials say.

Dr. Tyson, an astrophysicist, said the enormous computational power of the planetarium's computer system enabled not only the modeling, mapping and vivid display of stars, planets and distant galaxies, but the processing and projection of any other data that can be represented in three dimensions.

Philip Alden Benn, one of 19 animators who helped create "SonicVision," said the animation that he and his New York-based company, Atmospherex, were responsible for - about eight minutes of the show - was exacting and exhaustive work. "It is a new format of entertainment," he said. "It really is an immersive experience."

To achieve the desired effects, he said, he experimented with various types of color and imagery that he felt worked best in a spherical environment. In a computer-generated environment, he projected images on a virtual sphere with a highly reflective surface. The result gave him a sense of how his animations would appear on the planetarium's dome, 75 feet in diameter.

"This is the first domed music show in the world," Mr. Benn said.

Anthony Braun, the executive producer of the Rose Center, who worked on the planetarium's two current space shows, "Passport to the Universe" and "The Search for Life: Are We Alone?" - said he had long been mulling the planetarium technology's pure entertainment possibilities. "We've been talking about it for a couple of years and developing the concept," he said.

Once the $600,000 project received the go-ahead from the museum administration early this year, said Chris Harvey, the show's creative director, he began searching for artists and animators with the skills and sensibilities he viewed as essential to it.

Oddly enough, he said, the music came first. While working with MTV2, Mr. Harvey said, he came to view Moby, who regularly incorporates high-tech themes and images into his music and videos, as the natural choice to mix the music.

"One thing that Moby did that I thought was great was that he picked up a certain quality that the dome has," Mr. Harvey said. "The quality of space is present in a lot of his musical choices."

Moby said the music for the show, which includes bits of songs by Coldplay, Radiohead, U2, the Flaming Lips, Queens of the Stone Age and David Bowie, was digitally stitched together with a computer and ProTools digital editing software.

He said he was enthusiastic about working with the museum. "I'm a dim musician," he said, "but whenever I get an opportunity to get involved in science, I do."

Once he had a mix that established a mood and narrative flow, Moby said, the music was transferred to the planetarium for storage in its supercomputer. (The same system will provide the playback, not unlike that on a college student's desktop PC but on an exponentially larger scale.)

With the music readied, Mr. Braun said, the project's artists and 3-D animators turned to creating images to accompany the peaks and valleys of the mix.

They were urged to have fun, but above all, Mr. Braun said, the creative team wanted the animators to take advantage of the planetarium's dome.

"The main thing was capitalizing and maximizing that feel of immersion that you get in the dome," he said. "Everything that we visualized and talked about initially was all geared toward giving the viewer the feeling of being steeped in the image and flying through the image."

But when the planetarium's creative team started crunching dozens of terabytes of data into the finished show, a process that animators call rendering, its members realized that the hardware was not up to the task: the Hayden's 78-processor system was taking too long to render the show. So Sun Microsystems donated racks of servers, adding 40 high-speed processors to the planetarium's 78, along with accompanying software, in a $1 million contribution.

About a dozen domed planetariums in the United States and six abroad have similarly powerful computer-driven audio-visual hardware, said Anne Canty, a museum spokeswoman. But the Hayden is the first to create such a technologically advanced program simply for entertainment, said Mr. Gordon, the museum's vice president, adding that there were plans to sell the program to be shown in other planetariums.

That prospect gratifies Alex Coletti, the executive in charge of programming and production for MTV, who worked with the planetarium's staff on "SonicVision."

"I hope it goes to other locations all around the world so it can get before as many people as possible," he said. "It is a group experience. That has always been what music is."

Carl Goodman, a curator of digital media and director of new media projects at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, suggested that the show represented a broader reality than the communal music experience. From the design of telephones to highways, "today we live in a world that is rendered by computers in one way or the other," he said. "The same sort of software we use to create computer animation we also use to model, simulate and, in a sense, understand our world.''

"It would be kind of odd," he said, "if something like this was not happening in the planetarium."

- tom moody 9-18-2003 5:43 pm [link] [add a comment]