A Yearly Burning Sensation

Although there’s plenty of press on Burning Man during the event, there still seems to be a lack of understanding of what the event – which takes place for the week prior to Labor Day in Nevada’s Black   Rock Desert, is really all about. People I know and work with think it’s a:

– music festival
– art show
– extreme camping challenge
– hippie crystal exchange
– nudie love fest

So, it’s none of those, all of those and so much much more. What I CAN say is that it’s one week out of the year that the normal constructs of life, the context in which we typically live our lives is no longer in place, relevant or valid. It’s 55K people all contributing in their own little (or sometimes massive) way that produces an unimaginable feast for all the senses. This year was my 11th time out on the Playa and I put together a little slide show/video that captures some of the flavor of what it’s like – although no amount of photos/videos (no matter how beautifully shot) simply cannot capture a fraction of the scale of the event. That being said – here’s a taste:

Watson Wins It.

“I for one welcome our new machine overlord,”

If you haven’t already heard it, you will – over and over again. It’s what Ken Jennings wrote below his Final Jeopardy! wager knowing full well he and his other humanoid competitor were going to lose to a computer.

For all you “Singulartarians” out there – IBM’s super computer Watson, which beat two of the best Jeopardy! players ever tonight, could very well be one of the milestones that Mr. Ray Kurzweil will point to that validates his theory that within 35 years, human existence will be completely transformed by the overwhelming processing power of computers when we physically merge with hyper-intelligent technology. Want to be totally freaked? – read his book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

If you want to read some color commentary on the actual performance of Watson – Forbes.com’s account is pretty good.

Here’s a section of the piece that is demonstrative of the fragility, and also the complexity, inherent in Watson for it to be able to compete against humans… because the questions on Jeopardy! are displayed in all capital letters, “Having to read all-caps was going to confuse Watson’s ability to parse meaning from a long phrase without knowing which are the proper nouns or acronyms. Fortunately for the Watson team IBM Research also happens to have some math geeks around who can write-up a quick statistical program to derive the true case of the letters in any phrase.”

“I for one welcome our new machine overlord,”

Call of Duty Modern Warfare is My Son’s Pong

I was just recently at a friend’s house who is a big fan of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and who had his Play Station hooked-up to an 80″ HD plasma screen TV with insanely powerful surround sound home theater system. I’ve actually played CoD 2 a few years ago and was very aware of CoD MW2 but hadn’t actually seen the game. Needless to say, I was slacked jaw and blown away from the total experience. The realistic nature of the game – the fact that you’re effectively controlling a character in a life-like movie setting is simply amazing.

Given that our kids were running around, we played a few segments of the game that weren’t too bad in terms of violence and blood (which there’s a lot in the game). A couple of times, I let my son, who was dying to see it, actually play a few minutes here and there in sequences that were not any worse than a scene from the many action movies he’s seen like Hulk or Spider Man or Star Wars.

It then occurred to me that I was close to his age when Pong was first released. Pong, released in 1972 by Atari, is officially the first commercially successful video game, which ultimately led to the start of the video game industry. And it’s taken 38 years to get from that black and white paddle game to a completely photo realistic hyper-sensory experience that puts the player in the middle of intense fire fights and battles all over the world (Brazil, Russia, Middle East).

The question that quickly followed my realization was what kind of games will my son and daughter be playing with their kids in 38 years or 28 years or 18 years? Given the non-linear acceleration of computational power and broadband speeds and inverse relationship between the cost and capacity of storage – it truly boggles my mind to try to imagine what kind of gaming experience our children will have. Fully immersive gaming closets with bio-feedback interfaces? In-brain gaming implants? Bio-chemical hallucinatory mind-trips with full body stimulation…  avatars?

What will cause our children to look back at games like Modern Warfare 2 with fond memories and chuckle at the primitive and crude graphics, controls and game play? What will they be experiencing that will make MW2 look like Pong? As a parent and a closet gamer – it’s a very fun, exhilarating but also kinda scary question to ponder.

Lady Gaga Scares Me

I like to think that when it comes to music, I’m a pretty progressive guy. Although I crossed the 40 threshold not so recently, I still am pretty up-to-speed on what’s going on in music, pop and otherwise – including hip-hop, punk/alternative, electronic, ambient, jazz, etc. And over the course of my listening career, there’s always been the bands that seem more interested in freaking people out versus writing really good music. Bands such as Marilyn Manson and Gwar whose shock-rock approach to performance was a bit disturbing but felt cartoonish and not really dangerous. Then there are bands like Slipknot – that aggregate various nightmarish personas into a loud, harsh, grating wall of angry sound that turned the dial into creepy-dom but, even with their over-the-top aggro approach – still didn’t seem to pose a real threat to pillars of modern society.

So, given that these acts sent chills down some parent’s spines – but not mine, I always wondered what kind of music and artist would serve as the wedge between me (with my supposed open embrace of all music) and my soon-to-be teenagers – who like all their predecessors – have a genetic mission to find a band or bands that simply are incomprehensible to their parents. I used to say that save for speed death metal and maybe some popular country western acts – I’d be hard pressed to be freaked out by anything my kids would listen to.

However – after recently watching “Bad Romance” (below) by Lady Gaga I’ve now crossed into “concerned parent” territory. Although many younger viewers might not quite totally get what’s going on in the video – a forcibly drugged girl getting bid on by anonymous and ominous sex partners with a clear S&M bent resulting in a literal flaming bed and corpse, as an adult, I’m feeling very much “in the box”. What’s causing concern is that, unlike the groups mentioned previously, this isn’t a fringe act or underground artist playing on the margins of pop culture but is currently the hottest talent out there right now – for all young, impressionable teens and pre-teens to consume.

I normally would dismiss a pop artist like Lady Gaga as a flash in the pan… the flavor of the month – but she’s got undeniable talent. She writes all of her own music and lyrics – so she’s not just a voice with dance moves. Apparently she’s more performance artist than true pop artist – having started her career in coffee houses and small theaters working her way up into unbelievable stardom. But that doesn’t compensate for the overtly sexual and disturbing content of the video which brings forth the rubberized fun-buddy “The Gimp” from Pulp Fiction, with an undercurrent of “The Hostel II”, tasty lyrics like “I’m a freak bitch…” and an overdose of product placement – the most frequent appearance by the Ukrainian vodka brand, Nemiroff. A perfect storm of sex and sales.

I’m somewhat aware of what’s freaking me out – she’s a woman, overtly expressing a powerful, somewhat maniacal and fetishistic sexual energy with unabashed confidence – and anger, who is claiming territory typically staked out by her male counterparts while charting new paths into onstage psycho-sexual therapy… and having that tidy package delivered straight into my “family room”. Yikes!

Apparently the artistic explanation of the “Bad Romance” video’s narrative is about the human sex trafficking trade – an interesting subject for a teeny bopper pop act music video. Given that acts like LG need to keep breaking through the clutter and getting buzz and coverage, I’m now scared at what’s next and even more scared at what’s going to be standard pop fare in the years to come. I’m just sayin’…..

Are Our Wives and Mothers Becoming Unhappier?

If you believe that one of the biggest contributors to the well being of children is the strength and dynamic of the relationship between the father and mother – meaning that the health and stability of the primary relationship contributes greatly to the ability to be better parents, then today’s Forum subject warrants your focused attention.
This morning’s show focuses on the findings that women (and more so – mothers) have been becoming unhappier while men’s happiness has increased – which is the conclusion drawn from 37 years of data from the General Social Survey which has tracked Americans’ moods since 1972. Click here to listen to the discussion between Betsey Stevenson professor of at the Wharton School of Business, Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center and author of “Raising Happiness” and Ruth Rosen, professor of history at UC Berkeley and former columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Los Angeles Times. The discussion explores several potential causes such as the tendency for perfectionism among women, unrealistic expectations and media influences.

I was lucky and got to catch the whole broadcast on the drive down to Palo Alto this morning for a meeting. Let’s all give hugs, kisses and gratitude to our old ladies today.