June 8, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
From the elevated platform of the No. 1 train’s last stop at 242nd Street, you can just about see the lush 18-acre campus of the Horace Mann School. The walk from the station is short, but it traverses worlds. Leaving the cluttered din of Broadway, you enter the leafy splendor of Fieldston, an enclave of mansions and flowering trees that feels more like a wealthy Westchester suburb than the Bronx. Head up the steep hill, turn left, then walk a bit farther, past the headmaster’s house. From the stone wall that runs along Tibbett Avenue, you can see practically the whole school: Pforzheimer Hall, Mullady Hall, the auditorium, the gymnasium and, right in the center, the manicured green expanse of the baseball field, home of the Lions, pride of the school.
It was this field that drew me to Horace Mann 33 years ago, pulling me out of Junior High School 141 in the Bronx, with its gray-green walls and metal-caged windows. At 141, my friends’ résumés read like a crime blotter: Jimmy stole a pizza truck and dropped out after ninth grade; Eggy was done with 141 after he smashed the principal’s glasses with a right hook; Ish liked to pelt the Mister Softee truck with rocks; Bend-Over Bob OD’d and lived; Frankie was not so lucky. My future would have tracked swiftly in the same direction but for one factor: baseball. By 14, I had a sweet swing, with the arm, hands and game smarts to match.
That’s what brought me to the attention of R. Inslee Clark Jr., then headmaster of Horace Mann, a private school so elite that most students at 141 had never even heard of it. Inky Clark, a tireless scout of baseball talent, started showing up at my games, and he was not someone you could easily miss. He was a big guy with a powerful handshake, bright blue eyes and a booming voice. In his loud pink cardigans and madras pants, he always looked as if he came straight off the Kennedy compound or the bow of a yacht. He drove a bright orange Cadillac convertible, its rear bumper covered with Yankees stickers.
Clark was a legendary reformer. As dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale in the 1960s, he broke that institution’s habit of simply accepting students from fancy boarding schools, whatever their academic standing; instead, he started scouring the country for the most talented, highest-achieving students from any school and any background. “You will laugh,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1967, “but it is true that a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement test and identically ardent recommendations from the headmaster, has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul’s School.” As more minorities started appearing in the freshman classes, the university’s alumni and trustees did not laugh. But the rest of the Ivy League followed Clark’s bold lead, forever altering the history of the American meritocracy.
He brought that same crusading spirit to Horace Mann, where he welcomed girls to what had long been a proudly all-boys school. And he used his passion for baseball, the sport he coached, as a Trojan horse to bring promising students from rough schools to a campus otherwise reserved for the city’s most privileged children.
Clark could work a room like a politician, zeroing in on whomever he was speaking to, making him feel like he was the most interesting person in the world. He started calling me “the Mouse,” as my friends at 141 did, and he suggested I might find a home at Horace Mann. Touched, as was everyone who met him, by his tremendous personal charisma, I took it as a thrilling compliment. My parents saw the bigger picture: the opportunities that a Horace Mann education could bring, the ways it could change a kid’s life.
So in September 1979, I stood in the glassed-in breezeway through which students entered campus, wearing the pink Lacoste shirt my brother had somewhat optimistically insisted would help me fit in. All around me, the natives swarmed past — to the classrooms, to the science labs, to the brilliant futures they had been born to assume.
I was an outsider, but I was one of Inky’s boys and, as I quickly learned, that counted for a lot. I gathered with my new teachers and classmates in the auditorium and proudly sang Horace Mann’s alma mater: “Great is the truth and it prevails; mighty the youth the morrow hails./Lives come and go; stars cease to glow; but great is the truth and it prevails.”
Shortly after my arrival, a new friend walked me around the school, pointing out teachers to avoid.
“What do you mean? Like, they’re hard graders?”
“No. Perverts. Stay away from them. Trust me.”
I heard about some teachers who supposedly had a habit of groping female students and others who had their eyes on the boys. I heard that Mark Wright, an assistant football coach, had recently left the school under mysterious circumstances. I was warned to avoid Stan Kops, the burly, bearded history teacher known widely as “the Bear,” who had some unusual pedagogical methods. Even Clark came in for some snickering: he had no family of his own, and he had a noticeably closer-than-average relationship to the Bear, another confirmed bachelor.
It was juicy gossip, of course, but not all that different from what already swirls around the minds of sex-obsessed high-school students. Certainly it wasn’t that different from what swirled around the hallways of typically homophobic high schools at the time, when anyone who was a bit different was suspected of being gay and any teacher who was gay was suspected of being a pedophile.
I didn’t pay much attention. I was more focused on the important teenage business of losing my Bronx accent and my virginity. Over the next few years I studied Spanish and calculus and took Clark’s class, urban studies; I went to parties in my classmates’ lavish apartments, drank their liquor and snorted their cocaine. And I played baseball. Junior year, the Lions went 22-1.
When I was a senior, a family emergency took my mother abroad for several weeks, and my siblings and I were left to take care of ourselves. Clark invited me and my 12-year-old brother out for dinner, along with my friend Eric. On the designated night, we walked up the steps to the headmaster’s house, where Inky greeted us at the door. Photos of Horace Mann athletes lined the walls of the foyer, as they did the walls of his office. In the living room, by the fire, sat Stan Kops — the Bear — nursing a cocktail.
“Can I offer you boys a drink?” Inky called out from behind the bar. This certainly didn’t happen every day, but the suggestion didn’t sound so jarring in 1982, when the state drinking age was just being changed from 18 to 19. Like any self-respecting 17-year-olds, Eric and I said sure, as we all kidded my little brother about being left out of the fun. Gin and tonics were poured, consumed and refilled. Talk loosened up. Still, something about sharing fireside cocktails with Stan Kops was making me uncomfortable. I pointedly asked when we were going to dinner.
Boys in one vehicle, teachers in another, we swerved to the Riverdale Steak House. As Eric climbed out from behind the wheel of his blue van, he muttered a line that we still repeat to this day: “I’m not taking any shit from the Bear.” Then we stumbled into the restaurant, where we consumed steaks and many more gin and tonics.
At the end of dinner, Eric and I uttered some prearranged exit line, thanked our hosts, grabbed my brother and drove off drunk into the night, leaving the two grown men to pay the bill and finish out the evening as they might…
June 8, 2012
On a winter afternoon last March, Daryl Bem stepped out of the psychology department building at Cornell University, dressed in a red parka and a woolen hat to fend off the icy wind. As he walked along the pavement, navigating mounds of snow and taking care not to step onto the slushy street, the well-bundled social psychologist looked like a man who might prefer staying safe within the boundaries, a man who might shun risk—proving once again the danger of mistaking surface for substance. The 73-year-old Bem has defied the norm throughout his intellectual life, burning every dogma he’s encountered in the pyre of his logic. Now, in the twilight of his career, he has committed what may be his most daring act of sacrilege: claiming the existence of precognition, the ability to sense future events. Maybe this time, his colleagues say, Daryl Bem has gone too far.
Bem made his mark as a psychologist four decades ago by proposing the then radical idea that people adjust their emotions after observing their own behavior–that we sometimes develop our attitudes about our actions only after the fact. The proposition challenged the prevailing wisdom of the 1960s that things worked the other way around, that attitude was the engine from which behavior emerged. Though counterintuitive, Bem’s theory has held up to scientific scrutiny in dozens of studies and is now enshrined in psychology textbooks.
Over the years, Bem cemented his reputation as a rebel by floating other controversial theories on topics such as personality and sexual orientation. His own personal life was also decidedly unconventional. Despite being married to a woman, Bem never hid from his family the fact that he is gay. A few years ago, he explained this conjugal conundrum in an Internet posting (pdf) distinguishing between romantic love and sexual attraction, arguing that many individuals—like himself—fall in love with a person of the “wrong” gender.
Even in the context of a career of irreverence, there was little to suggest that Bem would end up defending the possibility of extrasensory perception, or ESP, which most mainstream scientists consider unworthy of serious inquiry. Through most of his career, he was as dubious about telepathy (mind reading) or precognition (seeing the future) as any of his colleagues.
Then data changed his mind.
In 2010 Bem published the results of nine experiments he had conducted over seven years that, in his view, constituted strong evidence of precognition. The paper, titled “Feeling the Future,” came out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a peer-reviewed publication held in high esteem by psychologists. It drew a flurry of media attention, but Bem denies that he is being provocative for controversy’s sake. “When someone holds up a common belief and says it is obvious, I say, well, let’s reverse the thinking on that and see where it gets you,” he says. Even if that reversal violates the rule that cause comes before effect.
To the extent that the past can predict the future, Bem’s early life was awash in hints of a restless mind. Growing up in Denver, he inherited a nonconformist streak from his mother, who delighted in the disapproving looks she would get as she rode a man’s bike through the neighborhood. She went bowling in the 1930s when it wasn’t considered respectable for women to hang out at bowling alleys, and she fought to include an African-American woman on her bowling team at a time when such a thing was unheard of. “I grew up knowing that being slightly out of step is fun,” says Bem, who often smiles even when there is no obvious reason for mirth.
When Bem was 8, his aunt and uncle gave him a magic set and he was instantly hooked. Every Saturday he went to a magic shop in downtown Denver where a magician performed behind the counter. Bem began doing his own magic act at birthday parties, carrying his gear in a suitcase labeled Daryl the Great.
In high school he saw the vaudeville mentalist Joseph Dunninger on television, seeming to read minds. Searching through a pile of magic catalogs, Bem found an ad that read: “You too can do what Dunninger does. Send for this manuscript.”
Soon Bem was performing mentalist tricks on stage, like guessing correctly what somebody in the audience had eaten for dinner the previous night, based on tangible clues that had nothing to do with psychic skill. What he particularly loved about mentalism was how convincingly magical it seemed. The audience was left wondering if there was something paranormal going on. “Maybe it’s a trick—but you’re not sure,” he says.
Bem studied physics at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and in 1960 went on to MIT for graduate work. At the time, MIT students were encouraged to take classes outside their major field of study. Most of the other physics students took math courses. Bem chose psychology, and the first class he took focused on race relations. What interested him most was an examination of segregation in the South. Government officials defending segregationist policies argued that it wasn’t possible to change people’s behavior without changing their hearts and minds first. Until whites felt more charitable toward blacks, the officials argued, there was no point in desegregating water fountains and other facilities. But studies in a number of Southern cities showed this was not true, Bem noticed. “When you did a survey asking if it would be OK to desegregate the schools, people were almost unanimously opposed,” he says. “Then a court decision would come down; they did it, and then six weeks later the survey showed that people had changed their minds.”…
When the Kinect was introduced in November 2010 as a $150 motion-control add-on to Microsoft’s Xbox consoles, it drew attention from more than just video-gamers. A slim, black, oblong 11½-inch wedge perched on a base, it allowed a gamer to use his or her body to throw virtual footballs or kick virtual opponents without a controller, but it was also seen as an important step forward in controlling technology with natural gestures.
In fact, as the company likes to note, the Kinect set “a Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling consumer device ever.” And at least some of the early adopters of the Kinect were not content just to play games with it. “Kinect hackers” were drawn to the fact that the object affordably synthesizes an arsenal of sophisticated components — notably, a fancy video camera, a “depth sensor” to capture visual data in three dimensions and a multiarray microphone capable of a similar trick with audio.
Combined with a powerful microchip and software, these capabilities could be put to uses unrelated to the Xbox. Like: enabling a small drone to “see” its surroundings and avoid obstacles; rigging up a 3-D scanner to create small reproductions of most any object (or person); directing the music of a computerized orchestra with conductorlike gestures; remotely controlling a robot to brush a cat’s fur. It has been used to make animation, to add striking visual effects to videos, to create an “interactive theme park” in South Korea and to control a P.C. by the movement of your hands (or, in a variation developed by some Japanese researchers, your tongue).
At the International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, used his keynote presentation to announce that the company would release a version specifically meant for use outside the Xbox context and to indicate that the company would lay down formal rules permitting commercial uses for the device. A result has been a fresh wave of Kinect-centric experiments aimed squarely at the marketplace: helping Bloomingdale’s shoppers find the right size of clothing; enabling a “smart” shopping cart to scan Whole Foods customers’ purchases in real time; making you better at parallel parking.
An object that spawns its own commercial ecosystem is a thing to take seriously. Think of what Apple’s app store did for the iPhone, or for that matter how software continuously expanded the possibilities of the personal computer. Patent-watching sites report that in recent months, Sony, Apple and Google have all registered plans for gesture-control technologies like the Kinect. But there is disagreement about exactly how the Kinect evolved into an object with such potential. Did Microsoft intentionally create a versatile platform analogous to the app store? Or did outsider tech-artists and hobbyists take what the company thought of as a gaming device and redefine its potential?
This clash of theories illustrates a larger debate about the nature of innovation in the 21st century, and the even larger question of who, exactly, decides what any given object is really for. Does progress flow from a corporate entity’s offering a whiz-bang breakthrough embraced by the masses? Or does techno-thing success now depend on the company’s acquiescing to the crowd’s input? Which vision of an object’s meaning wins? The Kinect does not neatly conform to either theory. But in this instance, maybe it’s not about whose vision wins; maybe it’s about the contest.
Theodore Watson bought a Kinect as soon as the gadget was available. He soon acquired 15 more. He admits to a “slight addiction” to the game Call of Duty, but he does not use any of his Kinects to play games. Watson is an artist and a designer who lives in Brooklyn, and his work uses closed-circuit security cameras, graphics cards and gaming hardware “tweaked,” he notes, “for our purposes.”
To use a Kinect with a computer instead of an Xbox, Watson needed a “driver” (basically a bit of software) that did not exist. He joined a small, far-flung, highly dedicated and technically sophisticated community effort dubbed OpenKinect, which sprang up immediately after the Kinect was introduced, to write the code that would make this possible. At the same time, Adafruit, a hobbyist-focused electronics company based in New York, offered $1,000 to the first person or group to write the necessary code in an open-source format.
At the time — this was shortly before the 2010 holiday season — Microsoft’s primary Kinect focus was the mainstream game-playing market. Its first response to OpenKinect seemed predictable: CNET reported an unnamed spokesperson declaring that the company “does not condone the modification of its products” and would “work closely with law enforcement . . . to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.” Adafruit increased its prize, ultimately to $3,000. Within days a developer in Spain posted videos demonstrating that he made his Kinect work with a P.C. OpenKinect refined and spread the open-source driver code, and a variety of “Kinect hacks,” as they came to be called, proliferated in YouTube videos. (An early example involved a Kinect used to create a version of the hand-swipe control contraption Tom Cruise used in “Minority Report.”) Soon Watson and his wife, Emily Gobeille, posted their own video, in which her hand movements were captured by a Kinect and translated onto a screen displaying a computer-generated bird figure, which she controlled like a high-tech puppet.
Watson told me this by phone from Amsterdam, where he and Gobeille had just presented a polished version of their creation as an installation at CineKid, an international entertainment festival, for an audience that included Dutch royalty. The specter of a Microsoft-backed “law enforcement” response to projects like his had obviously faded. In fact, shortly after the open-source driver was finished, one of Microsoft’s top Kinect people appeared on NPR’s “Science Friday” and, in remarks that were widely reproduced across the Web, asserted that OpenKinect participants would “absolutely not” be prosecuted…