Planet Courant

November 05, 2009

Ken Perlin

Sun and Moon (part 4)

“Clayton, darling, it is Francesca.”

For a moment Clay felt only astonishment. Then a big grin came over his face. “Francesca! How wonderful to hear from you.”

“Yes, my darling, it has been ages, and I have missed you. We will meet for coffee.” He understood that this was not a request. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Coffee with Francesca was very much something he looked forward to.

It was one of those charming little European style cafés, tucked away in a narrow side street, a place known only to locals. One sad day it would be discovered by tourists — betrayed, perhaps, by some well-meaning writer of guidebooks — and the thronging hordes would quickly suck the magic right out of it. And then, as if guided by some immutable law of cities, another café would spring up somewhere to take its place. But for now it was safe — you had to know somebody to find it, or at least know somebody who knew somebody.

Francesca knew everybody. Looking across at her beautiful aristocratic face, he could see even in this dim light that she was, at fifty six, far lovelier than any twenty four year old could ever hope to be. Francesca was like a fine italian wine - maturity only deepened her appeal, added new flavors and mysteries. Right now she was filling him in, her elegant phrases framed by a lilting Milanese accent that Carlo Porta himself would have envied.

“…Not that Frederick and I were happy toward the end, precisely. Dear Freddie was such a lost little boy, in so many ways. I suppose that was an essential part of the appeal, you see, at least during the early years. Summers in the south of France, that little cottage we kept in Majorca, the parties and the party people, it was all delightful, and I regret none of it. I stood by him through those ridiculous accusations, of course. But over time I came to accept that he was more boy than man. A boy I loved with all my heart, but alas not quite the yang to my yin, if you see what I mean.”

Clay nodded, letting her ramble on. We each deal with grief in our own way, he mused to himself. If Francesca needed to reframe her relationship with her departed lover, to create some distance in her mind, who was he to judge? We all get by, and many of us wage our battles with Thanatos by turning his own dark weapons against him. Some of us drink.

His reverie was interrupted by something she said. “Wait,” he said, “Go over that last part again.”

Francesca laughed, shaking her head. “Oh Clayton, you were always the dreamer - drifting off somewhere. Wherever does your mind go in such moments?” She regarded him with a fond look, and continued. “I was just speaking of the music box. The strange little box of bronze I found upon Freddie’s desk the day after his suicide, quite pretty actually, one of those silly little dual-purpose things in which you can place your small treasures and what-nots. It plays the most adorable tune, but this tune I cannot place. The melody is strangely familiar, as though one has encountered it before, perhaps as one remembers a tune last heard in childhood.” She looked thoughtful, a faintest crease of worry appearing upon her forehead. Then she leaned forward, gazing into Clay’s eyes with an intensity that was almost mesmerizing. “What I cannot understand — the puzzle, if you will — is how my Frederick could have been in possession of such an object without my ever having seen it. Was it a gift, perhaps, from another? Was I not woman enough for him?”

Suddenly she broke down and started to sob. Awkwardly Clay offered her his napkin. He wished he could say something that would comfort her, but there really were no words. Even Francesca’s formidable armor of European insoucience was no match for such an unexpected death.

He let her weep for a few minutes, waiting until he thought she was ready. He had already decided he would simply say it straight out, unadorned. “Francesca, Frederick’s death was not a suicide.”

She looked at him, startled. He could tell this revelation had caught her completely off-guard. “But the note he left, the method he chose to die — so much like his own writings — the way he had cut himself off from everyone those last months, how even I could not reach him…” Clay waited quietly until her protests had run their course.

“He sent me another note, quite a different one,” Clay continued, handing her the letter he had received. “We have established that this letter is real — and the suicide note a forgery. Your Freddie was murdered, I’m afraid.”

He could see that she had already regained possession of herself — the murder of her lover, horrific as it may have been, was easier for her to accept than the possibility of suicide. Francesca had a formidable mind, and now it was fully engaged. “Enemies?” she pondered. “Who would be an enemy to poor Freddie? He was more than enough of a danger to himself, without any need for outside assistance.” Absently she started to take a sip from her espresso, realized the little cup was empty, and placed it gently back down into its saucer. “What on earth are we dealing with here, my dear?”

“The music box,” Clay replied. “I have a hunch there is a connection. Have you looked inside the box?”

She leaned back in her chair and sighed. “I confess that was the very first thought I had upon finding the cursed thing. I was seeking a clue for his suicide, although I was a bit fearful of what I might find. Perhaps only that after all this time I had lost his heart to another. I do not know whether I could have withstood the second loss, on top of the first.”

“And what did you find?”

Francesca shrugged. “Nothing, nothing at all. The little bronze box is quite securely locked. I searched through all the drawers of his desk, somewhat frantically I’m afraid, but the key has turned up nowhere.”

by admin at November 05, 2009 04:54 AM

November 04, 2009

Ken Perlin

Sun and Moon (part 3)

“A private eye…?” Umbry stared at Clay suspiciously. She didn’t like it. Why would a gumshoe go around cold calling, just to share a case?

“A PI?” Julia stared at him as well, tilting her head in thought. He seemed nice, like he was on top of things. And he was obviously determined - she could tell, from his expression. Maybe a little tired, judging from the circles under his eyes, but he seemed okay.

Umbry looked over at Julia hesitantly, but Julia smiled and that was good enough for her.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Clayton. My name is Umbry Stykes, and this is Julia Strype. I believe you’ve come to the right place.”

Clay relaxed a little, and watched as the girls began to fix the place up, moving around the room in an ordered whirl, like one person with two bodies. Umbry set up the tables while Julia closed the curtains, carefully avoiding the cat and managing to give it a pet as well. Clay took a seat closest to the window and they took the other side, sitting next to each other in what seemed to be symmetrical poses. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope.

“I received this recent letter from a friend, recommending you two,” he began, opening his briefcase. He took out a copy of the letter and a collection of photos, which Julia began to peruse.

The first picture was of a man, smiling, with beautifully snowy mountains in the background. The man seemed to be perhaps in his 50s or early 60s, but he’d certainly aged well, and he looked happy. There were several more pictures of him similar to these, next to friends or in large groups, always smiling. In one he was standing next to Clay. His smile looked slightly sadder in this picture.

“Does he look familiar?” Clay asked, watching them. “He’d been a client of mine, Mr. White.”

“He rings a bell, but I can’t say,” Julia finally said, biting her lip.

Umbry scowled at Clay. “You mean to say he’s dead?”

He nodded. “You’re quite observant, Umbry. The letter I received from him was dated just prior to his death, and I received it only afterward.” Clay held out two pieces of paper and an envelope, which Umbry promptly took and smoothed out in front of her. Meanwhile Julia flipped to the last picture in the collection, which was obviously a crime-scene photo. Mr. White was hanging by a rope from the ceiling. He wasn’t smiling at all.

Umbry read the letters. The first was addressed to Clayton Adam Terransky. Judging from the envelope, it had apparently gone to several places before reaching its destination. “Dear Clay,” it read.

“If you are reading this letter, then I am already dead. My instructions to my solicitor were to keep this note securely locked in my safety deposit vault in Zurich until such time as I ceased to be. You, my dear Clayton, are the only one I can trust. Here is the address of a certain detective agency - two charming if rather eccentric young women. Go to them - they will help…” The signature was scribbled, but Umbry read it as Frederick White.

The second was a suicide note. Julia leaned over Umbry’s side and read it aloud.

“For me, the world just isn’t enough anymore. Those close to me have all died, and there is no longer anyone I can trust. I will take my leave now. Tell the world that I was once Frederick White, and let me die in peace.”

The note was also signed, and the signatures appeared to match. Julia looked back at the picture of the smiling man and the cloudy mountains and sighed. “Poor man…”

“It wasn’t a suicide, Julia,” Umbry said. “This note was forged.” Julia wrinkled her nose at Umbry, surprised, while Umbry continued, “But you know that already, don’t you, Mr. Terransky?”

“Yes, I do. The forger was skilled and could almost reproduce Fred’s handwriting, but he used contractions. Fred hated those. In every piece of writing I have from him, he has never used a contraction.”

“So you knew him as more than a client. He was your friend.” Julia was still staring at the pictures, which she’d now spread out in front of her.

“Yes, he was. And that’s why I’ve followed his instructions here.”

“But why here? We aren’t exactly famous. We are so definitely not famous.”

“He knew you. In fact, you were very important to him,” Clayton said. He took out another case file from his briefcase, this one seemingly a little older. But the girls knew exactly what it was as soon as they saw it.”This is…” Julia began, staring at it as she plucked the memories from her head.

“…It’s our breakout case. The Fitzgerald case, with the millionaire,” Umbry continued. “Everyone thought the motive was burglary, but the theft was just smoke and mirrors. And there was a Mr. White — your Mr. White it appears. He was the prime suspect until our sleuthing cleared him. We never actually met the man, but I knew I remembered that face. Wow. This guy gets his fair share of cases, doesn’t he?” Julia continued to stare at the photo, finally laying it back down and piling it with the others. “This time the case is his own death.” She shivered.

“But he isn’t just hiring one gumshoe,” Umbry mused, still deep in thought. “If he’d just wanted SunMoon on the case, he could’ve easily sent that letter to us directly. No, he wanted you in on it too, which means either that he wanted us all to work together or that you’re involved. Perhaps both.”

Clay stared at her. The sorts of implications she was making… “Do you suspect me of anything? I have a clear alibi. The police already interviewed me and didn’t find me suspicious–”

“We’re not suspecting you, Clayton.” Julia was smiling, slightly bemused. “Umbry can be like that sometimes, which is why I’m the one who deals with the witness reports. Now the fact is, Mr. White knew that in order to solve his case you would need to join forces with Umbry and myself, and I know that the two of us feel horribly that he died, especially after all that’s happened to him in the past. He knew that coming to us would yield good results for you, and it will. So if you’ll trust us, I’m sure we’ll have this case solved in no time, no matter what it takes. Sound good?”

Clay found himself touched by this speech. He had expected eccentricity, but he hadn’t expected charm. He found himself shaking Julia’s hand, then Umbry’s, and promising to keep them in the loop. He felt oddly elated all the way back home. He thought to himself that it had been a successful first meeting, and he figured he might sit down and have a glass to celebrate. Only the one glass. Just then the phone rang. He managed to pick it up just before the answering machine kicked in, sounding slightly out of breath when he answered.

“Hello?”

by admin at November 04, 2009 04:35 AM

Courant Institute - Google Blog Search

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by pallegra@gmail.com at November 04, 2009 12:08 AM

November 03, 2009

Ken Perlin

Sun and Moon (part 2)

He was running fast - as fast as he’d ever remembered running. Sweat was pouring down into his eyes, making everything before him smear into a blur. Darting into one narrow alleyway and out of another, he thought a few times he’d given it the slip - the Beast - but then he’d hear its heavy footfalls behind him again. Where was he? The signs were all in Japanese - Tokyo, maybe. Asakusa district. But the streets were deserted, which was impossible. No time to think about that now. He didn’t look back - that would just slow him down, the hideous thing would catch up with him and that would be the end. Wait - did he even know what the Beast looked like? Had he ever looked back? Something about that last thought seemed wrong. “This has happened before,” he heard himself saying aloud, although he could swear he hadn’t moved his lips. That was the last thought he had before he felt a claw attach itself to his left ankle. He tried to shake free but the claw dug in and pulled savagely backward, drawing his snared foot with it. Needles of pain shot up his leg. He began screaming even before he started to fall…

Clay woke up covered in sweat.

So the dreams were coming back. He hadn’t had one of those since the first months after she… He stopped the thought before it had time to fully form, with a discipline born of long practice. He tried sitting up, and promptly realized he had a raging hangover. Slowly, deliberately, he swung his legs to the floor and managed to get his weight under him, to stand up. It took all his concentration to make it to the bathroom, to get his head under the shower, one hand pressed against the cool tile for support, the other hand turning on the cold water tap.

It felt good. Icy cold, damned good. Brain function began to return, clarity restored, a clarity he’d obviously been trying his darnedest to avoid the night before. He didn’t remember the exact sequence, but it seemed that at some point last night he’d given up trying to keep the memories out, had poured himself a drink, only the one, just to take the edge off. But of course it was never only the one, was it?

He dried off his hair, and with a purposeful air walked back into the bedroom. One of the two whiskey bottles was empty, but the other was only half finished - good thing he’d passed out when he had or he’d be feeling a lot worse right about now. He looked at the labels, impressed. Both bottles were Macallan thirty year old single malt - pure liquid gold. How the hell had he come into possession of such riches? Most likely the misplaced gratitude of a wealthy former client. Back in the day, when he’d still had wealthy clients. Before…

He could feel the thought stop cold in his head as he walked over to the sink, ran the tap, and carefully poured out the remaining whiskey. How odd to be pouring over four hundred dollars worth of liquor down the drain - more money than he had left in the bank, last time he’d checked. But now he had something better than money - something he hadn’t had in a long time - an interesting case.

It took him only twenty minutes to shower the rest of his body, shave badly, pull on his old suit and head out the door. Another twenty to get to his destination. When he arrived he looked dubiously at the dilapidated old store front. The rotten smell emanating from the grocery store next door was definitely not helping his lingering hangover. He couldn’t figure out which looked more out of place here, the ancient doorbell beneath the faded sign on the glass door, or the fluffy white cat sleeping in the window. He declared it a tie. Trying to look as dignified as possible, he rang the bell.

The front half of the doorbell promptly fell off the door. It hit the ground with a loud ringing thud that seemed to go right through his aching head. He stared down balefully, wondering if this had been a good idea after all. Just then the door opened and a young brown haired man opened the door.

“Welcome to SunMoon detective services. We solve your cases, night or day. How may I help you?” The young man smiled helpfully. “Please don’t mind the doorbell - it does that.”

Clay remembered the importance of first impressions. He thought of various ways of expressing regret over the doorbell incident, decided in the end to pretend it had never happened. Squaring his shoulders, he looked the young man in the eye and was about to speak, when suddenly he realized he was seeing double. Well, almost double. Two young women had just appeared. They looked almost identical, except that one had bright orange curls and the other possessed the blackest head of straight hair he’d ever seen. Both women had one eye hidden by her hair, so that between them they had only two eyes visible. For a moment he had the oddest sensation that he was looking into the eyes of a single person.

“Oh my,” he said to himself, “One person, two heads.” His own head started to ache with renewed vigour. Then he got a hold of himself, and started again.

“My name is Clayton Adam Terransky, private investigator, and I have an interesting case for you.”

by admin at November 03, 2009 03:07 AM

November 02, 2009

Courant Institute - Google Blog Search

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by Andy at November 02, 2009 03:24 AM

Eric Michael Hielscher

Party, Shows, DQE

Friday night when I got home from the office I was greeted by my neighbors' open door to their Halloween party. My new neighbors are pretty much super lame frat boys who listen to bad music and drink bad beer. I don't really care cuz I don't really know any of my neighbors anyway now that the Swedish girls are gone, other than the music sometimes (though they're on the opposite side of the apartment than my bedroom so it's not so bad usually). The music was pretty loud this time though, so I drowned them out for a couple hours with my guitar but that only served to egg them on. Thus I switched to blasting our stereo, first with Russian Circles, and then to the suggestion of Arthur when he got home, some "really annoying" stuff like Big Black and Ministry. This lasted til past 1 when Can got home and wanted to go to bed, so I ended up staying up til 2 reading this history of Nabokov's Russian life that Lewis bought me and then having my earplugs mostly do the trick. Now, I didn't complain to them or the management cuz I wanna be consistent with respect to the fact that I think the people who live in my building should be able to have loud parties on weekends, but a nasty note left on their door by some other neighbors apparently shows that not everyone feels as I do.

Woke up sort of late Saturday, and luckily my budding sore throat had disappeared. I got an email from Galia about a discussion on free will and God which she'd had with her friend and wrote up a huge response to that and then made plans to discuss it with her when she got back from visiting her grandfather, and thus to kill time til then I biked over to the tin can and practiced drums for like 40 mins and guitar for like 1.5 hours. Then it was back and we talked on Skype for quite a while. It was a good talk, and for those who don't know, I'm tentatively supporting the position that free will is an illusion but one that, in the daily psychological context, we necessarily adopt and believe in order to function. However, underneath it all are just the deterministic laws of physics and thus free will is actually impossible. And yes, I still believe that morality is compatible with this thank you for asking. However, all of these positions are somewhat tentative as I haven't read enough or thought enough in depth about the matter to fully form a view, though I imagine that no matter what view that were it would have to be only tentative due to intellectual honesty.

Anyway, after that I played guitar for another many hours while talking to Can after spending some time working on my Depth Qualifying Exam reading list and presentation. I have to give a big oral exam on Dec 1 which includes a presentation on around 15 papers which form the background context of my own research work, and then also present my own research itself, all of this to a committee consisting of my advisor and 2 other faculty members. I'm really not worried about it, I just have to make sure I'm fully prepared. After I pass this, I'll be awarded a Master's from NYU (which would be my first, as I still never wrote my UvA thesis). Around 9 I decided I needed to get out of the house and hit up this Wooden Shjips show at a new music venue quite near where I lived my first year in New York though a little more removed in the warehouse district (good for noise reasons). It was raining a tiny bit which almost scared me too much to venture out on my bike, but I braved it, and it was great as the rain was very very mild and it was warm. The venue itself was really cool with little rooms with couches in the main hall and a big rooftop for smoking and admiring the Kosciusko Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. I ended up being there alone for like 5 hours or so, seeing Religious Knives, Vivian Girls, and Crystal Stilts in addition to the headliners. The other bands were quite missable, though I sort of like RK and really didn't like the others. I just hate garage and this is a special variety called shitgaze. I consider the name apt. Anyway, I had a few gin and tonics, took a walk around the hood during a break, and was home by the second 1am. I'll definitely be going back there as it rocked. The place was also insanely crowded with people in costumes and some guy during the RK set offered me mushrooms from a baggie out of which he was eating them and then a "hit" from his beer. I declined both offers, but thanked him graciously.

Today I got up before 10 which in the past weeks is early, talked to Galia for an hour, and then rolled into the office. I mostly just worked on my DQE prep. Now I'm about to meet Lewis at Earthmatters for dinner and then he, I, and Nguyen are gonna see Bellini at Bowery.

I fly to Israel on Thursday morning!

by Eric M Hielscher at November 02, 2009 12:39 AM

November 01, 2009

Ken Perlin

Sun and Moon (part 1)

This is the first part (of thirty parts) of a Nanowrimo story that my collaborator and I will be writing, as one post every day, throughout the month of November.

It really didn’t seem like that amazing a place when you first saw it. The sign on the glass door was old (but could have been older), its text faded (but still legible). To the left of the street entrance was an old grocery store whose food was nearly all rotten or infested with some sort of bug — to the right, a restaurant that never got any customers. A fluffy white cat was sleeping in the window. From the outside, the agency looked more like a dentist’s office. The only clue to its true nature was the small, badly-drawn symbol on the aforementioned old, faded sign — the sun, eclipsed by the moon, and a simple phrase in plain text: SunMoon detective services.

Of course it was a run-down place, but that was probably a good thing. Those girls, the SunMoon detectives, were so smart that a place any nicer would have flooded them with customers and undoubtedly burnt them out within a month and a half. They liked it here. Or rather, they didn’t particularly dislike it. None of their neighbours talked to them much, and they had to do the occasional odd job to pay the rent, but when they got their cases, they solved every one. Whether it was lost cat or a murderer on the lam, they could find it for you.

The self-proclaimed ‘Sun’ half of their service was exceedingly bored at the moment. Her office was littered with bad drawings of smiling faces and rainbows. On her desk, in place of the customary picture of a loved one, she had a newspaper clipping from the last time they’d solved a really big case a few years ago. Her computer ran a screensaver of a bustling city during the day, but it was of no interest to her at the moment. Right now she was wrapped up in one of her doodles, trying desperately to draw a lion basking in the sun purely from memory. Or at least that was the picture in her head. To anyone else the drawing looked a lot more like an anorexic cat right after being run over.

But that wasn’t the kind of thought she would have. She was the sun, and the Sun should be bright, productive and cheery. Oh! Productive! That’s right, she was supposed to be doing something worthwhile. She straightened herself up, pushing orange curls off of her right eye, and wrote in large letters on the top of her doodle-filled page: NOTES. Smiling and having accomplished her goal, she slouched again and continued drawing her lion. Julia Strype, after all, wouldn’t be caught dead doing something non-productive.

Speaking of non-productive, in an adjacent office, one door down from Julia the ‘Sun’, sat the ‘Moon’, although this title was not exactly self-proclaimed. She couldn’t remember exactly how she had gotten to be the ‘Moon’, but suffice to say it was not her idea. Her room was far less cheery than that of her partner. On the wall were miscellaneous prints of waterfalls and mountainous landscapes, neither of which particularly ignited her interest, and on her desk was a faded newspaper clipping from when they were still Genius Teen Detectives. On the back wall there was a colourful dartboard, festooned at the moment with about a dozen magnet darts, none of which were even vaguely close to the center of the board.

She glanced over quickly at her computer’s screensaver, which displayed a number of tropical fish swimming across the screen, back and forth, back and forth. Quite mesmerizing, she thought, if you stared at it long enough. Right now it was the angelfish. Sighing, she pushed her straight black hair out of her left eye and threw another dart, missing the dartboard completely. Maybe it was her lack of depth perception… why did they have these stupid haircuts, anyway? Concealing one eye each from the rest of the world only debilitated them, didn’t it? Anyway, all things considered it probably hadn’t been her idea. She decided to throw her next dart straight up into the air and catch it, but it ended up hitting the door behind her and landing, broken, on the ground. She sighed again, frustrated.

It had been months since their last case, and their last case had been way too easy. They needed something big. Umbry Stykes, the ‘Moon’ detective, really hated being bored. A whole world full of crime, and yet it seemed there weren’t any interesting cases they could get their hands on. Friggin’ FBI and the police and all the other acronyms got all the good ones. Maybe the days of the PI were really over. Maybe they should shorten their name. S and M? Oh wait, that didn’t sound too good at all. She wrinkled her nose, stretched and stood up, walking out into the lobby. She was greeted by an apathetic college guy and a sleeping cat. She patted it (the sleeping cat, that is, NOT the college guy) on the head and it purred. The college guy, on the other hand, didn’t even acknowledge her presence.

“Any calls, Lindsay?” She asked, trying to act as if she hadn’t come out here for the express purpose of knowing if there were any calls.

“What do you think?”

Umbry sighed. “Good point.” She gave the fluffy cat one last scratch behind the ears and left. The cat turned lazily to gaze up at Lindsay. He smiled back at it before going back to looking at funny pictures of other cats. Oh, how he loved cats.

A few minutes later Julia emerged from her office. She scratched the white cat’s ear and rubbed its belly, and the cat purred loudly in contentment. She smiled.

“Any calls, Lindsay?”

“What do you think?”

“…Oh.” Somewhat disappointed, she gave the cat one last belly rub and left for her office, closing the door behind her.

Lindsay rolled his eyes. “What weirdos. I swear, as soon as I get a better job than this…” He leaned back in his chair and yawned, pushing shaggy brown hair out of his eyes. The cat stared at him for a second through half-open eyes and then curled back up in a ball to continue sleeping, apparently having had enough excitement for one day. He grinned in appreciation at the feline’s economy of expression, and was about to continue perusing his catalogue of comical cats when the front doorbell rang. Startled by the unexpected sound, he jumped out of the chair, quickly scooping up the mess of doodles, darts and candy wrappers and sweeping them into the desk drawer. If he’d been able to get to the door faster, he could have told his customer that their bell was very old. Now he could only watch as half of the bell detached itself from the glass door, making a very depressing muffled ringing as it hit the ground. Bashfully, he massaged his temples, and proceeded to flip his long bangs away from his face. He put on an obviously fake ghost of a smile. The cat, now awake again, watched this unexpected bustle of activity with clinical interest.

“Welcome to SunMoon detective services. We solve your cases, night or day. How may I help you?”

by admin at November 01, 2009 07:45 PM

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October 31, 2009

Ken Perlin

Democracy

Halloween eve in New York City, and the last day before my writing partner and I begin our November novel. In this pause between two projects, I have time to reflect with nostalgia on something we used to have in NYC. It’s not something everybody cares about, and I realize I’m going to sound hopelessly old fashioned in some circles for being so gauche as to mention this. But I can remember a time - not all that long ago really, when New York City actually had a democratically elected mayor.

Now of course we have the illusion of an election. Everybody here is going through the motions, pretending it’s a real election, pretending that there is any doubt as to the outcome. But of course it’s not a real election. It’s like some poor sap being pushed into the ring with a raging gorilla, and told to fight a fair fight.

Well, almost like that. Except in this case, the gorilla weighs around sixteen times as much as his opponent.

And the odd thing is that none of this is about who is the better candidate. There are good things and bad things to say about both the incumbent mayor Mike Bloomberg and his challenger Bill Thompson. Each has done commendable things during his political tenure, and each has stumbled on occasion. But that’s not what this election is about, not even a little.

This election is about three hundred and fifty million dollars - around one third of a billion bucks. That’s how much our current Mayor, a billionaire worth around $17 billion, will have spent on his three runs for office by election day next Tuesday. By comparison, the Obama presidential campaign spent less than twice that much to reach an electorate approximately one hundred times larger.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that’s a lot of money. On the contrary, it’s hardly anything at all - chump change really - if you are Mike Bloomberg and so happen to have $17 billion in the bank. By way of comparison, let’s say you were running for mayor, and you decided to self-finance your campaign. Suppose you had, say, $10,000 in your bank account (times being hard and all). Well, if you spent the same proportion of your personal wealth as our current mayor has this time around, the election would cost you less than a hundred bucks - about the cost of a nice dinner for two in Manhattan, if you order wine and dessert, and don’t have to pay for parking.

So basically all our mayor is doing, in terms of his own personal spending, is going out for dinner with a lady friend and maybe getting a nice merlot and the blueberry pie. He’s not even taking the car.

But from the point of view of us ordinary mortals the situation is quite different. Bloomberg has top ad agencies, production companies, store fronts in Manhattan filled with teams of campaign workers, the services of the best professionals money can buy, all working around the clock, all focused on trying to discredit Bill Thompson. Almost every day I get a fancy flyer in my mailbox from the Bloomberg reelection campaign. And these are no ordinary flyers. They are like nothing you’ve ever seen before in an election. The production quality on these things makes even the polished Obama campaign literature look like it was hand cranked on a used mimeograph machine by some sweaty old guy in a basement.

Somewhere there are suppliers of fancy paper, exotic inks, custom illustrations and high class glossy photography, as well as an entire Letterman-show full of writers, who are thriving despite the bad economy, just to make those flyers that keep landing in my mailbox. And every one of these lovely flyers does the same thing - attack Bill Thompson with the intensity of a pack of feral dogs ripping into a downed calf.

I’m starting to wonder whether Bill Thompson isn’t actually some sort of saint - a holy man with angel wings and the moral discipline of a Mahatma Gandhi. Otherwise, by now we would surely all be convinced the man was a raving pornographic child molester, given the sheer volume of vitriol being hurled at him by the Bloomberg campaign.

Don’t get me wrong. Our incumbent mayor has achieved some fine things at City Hall. But this is crazy. The Thompson campaign is completely outgunned, shouted down at every turn by Bloomberg’s shockingly over-financed operation. The challenger is unable to get any message at all out to the voters. Anything he might have to say has been overwhelmed by the solid wall of media blitz that is the Bloomberg campaign.

No, Mr. Bloomberg is not breaking any laws by doing this. The fault lies with our election laws, which are so screwed up that they indeed allow wealthy people to buy elections. And to be fair, it wouldn’t work if Bloomberg were an atrocious mayor. But nonetheless, this is not an election about the merits - it is not about which of the two candidates is better. That question has been effectively buried under an avalanche of lopsided spending. This election is about one thing: a sixteen to one spending ratio.

And so I find myself asking the following question: If you believe in the idea of fair elections, can you vote for someone who is deliberately, ostentatiously subverting the process? And if you were to pull the lever for that guy, knowing he was effectively buying your vote, could you still tell yourself that you live in a democracy?

by admin at October 31, 2009 11:34 PM

Courant Institute - PubMed

Activity patterns in networks stabilized by background oscillations.

Related Articles

Activity patterns in networks stabilized by background oscillations.

Biol Cybern. 2009 Jul;101(1):43-7

Authors: Hoppensteadt F

The brain operates in a highly oscillatory environment. We investigate here how such an oscillating background can create stable organized behavior in an array of neuro-oscillators that is not observable in the absence of oscillation, much like oscillating the support point of an inverted pendulum can stabilize its up position, which is unstable without the oscillation. We test this idea in an array of electronic circuits coming from neuroengineering: we show how the frequencies of the background oscillation create a partition of the state space into distinct basins of attraction. Thus, background signals can stabilize persistent activity that is otherwise not observable. This suggests that an image, represented as a stable firing pattern which is triggered by a voltage pulse and is sustained in synchrony or resonance with the background oscillation, can persist as a stable behavior long after the initial stimulus is removed. The background oscillations provide energy for organized behavior in the array, and these behaviors are categorized by the basins of attraction determined by the oscillation frequencies.

PMID: 19408008 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

by Hoppensteadt F at October 31, 2009 10:00 AM

Ken Perlin

Wild things, part 7

That’s pretty much it for the new techniques developed for combining hand drawn and 3D animation for the Wild Things test. The only thing left to talk about is shadows. Here we cheated, in a really outrageous way - but it paid off.

When you create a computer graphic scene, you specify a number of light sources. The computer program calculates, for each pixel in the image, where is the visible 3D point at that pixel, and from that it calculates which of your light sources are able to illuminate that point, and which are in shadow. After all, not every light source can reach every point in the scene. Sometimes there are objects in the way that block the light from some light source or another - thereby creating shadows.

In order to make Max and his dog feel as though they were part of the 3D scene - even though they were really hand-drawn animated characters - it was very important that they cast shadows. Otherwise they would have appeared to look like they were just floating in front of the scene.

Of course, Max and his dog were not really 3D objects in the scene. So we couldn’t just throw some sort of algorithm at the problem of what shape their shadows should take - there is, quite literally, no mathematical solution to that problem. Fortunately, we had animators who were perfectly happy to draw the outline of a shadow. And here is where we cheated. Just as we had the animator draw the outline of a character, and then used a computer paint program to fill in that character’s colors, similarly, we asked the animator to draw the outline of the shadow that Max or his dog should cast onto the 3D scene.

In other words, we relied on the animator’s talent to figure out where the shadow should go. Once we knew the shape of the shadow in any given frame of the animation, we used that shape to suppress the lighting from the key light source in the 3D computer graphic lighting. The visual result was the same as if we’d had a magic computer graphic algorithm to cast true shadows onto the scene.

Note that we were not painting a shadow onto the scene. Rather, we were invoking the same computer graphics techniques that we used to light and shade the 3D background - except we were giving the animator a chance to add shadows to this 3D shaded scene.

On a philosophical level, this created a very interesting interaction between animator and scene. 2D hand drawings were being used to reach in and directly modify the physics of a 3D computer graphic simulation - in particular, blocking 3D light sources at selected pixels. Effectively, we were casting actual shadows from non-existent objects.

The results were spectacularly successful, as you can see from watching the Wild Things test.

The only final note - and it is an important one - is that we were very careful throughout the production to choose the colors for the 3D computer graphic background and the image-processed hand-drawn characters that would mesh together perfectly. I can’t overemphasize how important this is when making a film that combines work from two very different media.

Examined in hindsight, our little test for “Where the Wild Things Are” represented a new way to look at computer animation. It wasn’t the result a single technique, or even a single approach, but rather a mash-up of complementary techniques and approaches, a way of mixing the old and the new, of using the computer as a tool in a very different way. That little test floated around the industry in the following years, and ended up influencing many things that were to come after, from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” to the “Toy Story” films and beyond. I would argue that the success of this test proved the point of what my friend Lance Williams used to point out, around the time we were first bringing Max and his dog to life: “Computer graphics,’” he would say, “is limited only by your imagination.”

by admin at October 31, 2009 04:36 AM

October 30, 2009

Eric Michael Hielscher

Shows, Visitors, Amps (Concerten, Bezoekers, Versterkers) [Concerts, Visiteurs, Amplificateurs]

Let's see, I think I'll write about more recent events as those are fresher and their details are more likely to be lost.

Last Thursday I went to a CMJ concert headlined by Cinemechanica but I was there to see The Bronzed Chorus, a 2-piece post rock band from North Carolina. Lewis was thinking about joining me but couldn't make it til 10, and they went on more like at 8:45. Thus I saw them myself. They were a little sloppy but it was still cool, and they inspired me by having 2 Fender amps for stereo delay effects (cue the foreshadowing music). The main problem with them was just that they were way too loud for the space, and a few times it felt like I was going to fall over cuz I was dizzy from the mind-blowing loudness. I had a beer there and for some reason felt like lots of girls were checking out my butt while I stood there alone up front and I then let Lewis know that I was ready to roll and we met up at Burp Castle instead of the show. We had 3 beers there in the new outdoor terrace which we both think is a significant downgrade from the previous setup. On the bike ride back we were rather tipsy and sort of got into a race over the Williamsburg Bridge which I decidedly won, even after having to stop and check out some glass I'd run over. I then just went home while I believe he continued the revelry at some other venue.

Friday I gave into temptation and called up a guy who was advertising an early 1968 Fender Super Reverb on Craigslist for $1100. This is one of the older silverfaces which still had the blackface circuit (though of course they're still not as "desirable" as a pre-CBS one). I called up Sal to see whether he'd be down to give me a hand with his van with picking it up and that was a go so we went over to the West Village. I was able to pull out $1000 in cash from the ATM in one shot which was surprising and then we went to the oldish (50?) dude's place and I beat on the amp but it was tip top so I was sold. We then drove over to the practice space and I set that and the pedals up in stereo and we jammed for a while, and then we brought my Orange back home so I can use it as my practice amp until I sell it, though it will be sad to part with it. I'd much rather have a real practice studio and a nice Fender guitar than the Orange however. Anyway, I took Sal out to eat at Fabiane's in payment and it was nice though we noticed that they serve foie gras by which we were both instinctively repulsed. This caused me to look up the production of foie gras and I found that outside of France there are some producers which simply kill the geese or ducks at the time of year just before migration would occur and thus when their livers would naturally be at their fattiest (though French producers claim that this produces clearly inferior meat). I only hope that Fabiane's uses such meat and not the traditional stuff. Anyway, after that I went home and played guitar for another hour or so before Sal called me up again and had me come over to the bar where he used to clean to hang with him and his friend who owns it. We headed over there and hung for a while, mostly being entertained by her adorable new puppy that she'd just gotten that day. After this it was decided that we'd go to the gallery opening of the dick chicken exhibition at 3rd Ward (the one at Lorimer and Metropolitan). For those not in the know, dick chicken is some dude who's been tagging Williamsburg and various other areas of New York with said moniker but also this cartoon drawing of a chicken with a penis for a head. It's pretty much all over the place, and everyone seems to know about it and have an opinion about it, and lately there have been some imitators (Pussy Ham: said phrase with a ham and a vagina in the middle of the ham and blood seeping out; Taint Turkey: a turkey stick figure with a line to its taint and the word taint written there; etc.). I was curious to "meet the man behind the cock", and the exhibition flyer suggested I'd have the chance to do. Sal was really against going, calling it the Britney Spears of street art, but in the end neither of us had anything better to do so we went. Outside the place we ran into a friend of Sal's (of course, he knows everyone) who apparently is friends with dick chicken himself and had helped set up the show. We chatted with dude for a while and then went in to find a super packed little gallery with tons of people. I immediately realized that Sal was right, and the art itself was just like advertisements for dick chicken pizza or dick chicken mcnugglets, and so I sort of was kicking myself for having gone. We didn't even meet the man behind the cock. I did however make my way back to the open bar and luckily, it turns out, they were out of cups. What they did have was a bunch of lemon vodka and some empty 1/3 litre sparkling water bottles, so the guy just filled one of those with like 6 shots for me and gave me that free of charge. With this in tow we just left and went across the street to Kellog's Diner and got dinner and I drank my "water" with my omelet and fries. After this I was quite jolly and we continued the party over at Barcade where I had another 2 beers and we played a bunch of video games, all the while Sal wanting to get on Dig Dug but these dudes were hogging it for well over an hour and a half. When we eventually got on it he showed me this trick you can do to get the game to lock up and not advance to the next level, the only way out being rebooting the machine. We thus sat back and watched the hogs' frustration and then walked up to Bedford before parting ways. At home were Shlomit and her cousin Talie waiting for me as they'd come down to New York with some others on a road trip to see the Leonard Cohen concert. I chatted with them for a while before hitting the hay.

Saturday morning I slept in quite late and then brought Talie over to meet Shlomit at the Roebling Tea Room for brunch. We sat in the back corner and had our cheesy eggs and discussed the tension between research and teaching in academia and then they went off on their own while I went home and relaxed. I was quite tired from the night before and resolved not to drink anything alcoholic that day. I ended up chilling at home, talking to Galia for a while, playing some guitar, etc. Around 7:30 I got a text from Shlomit asking to meet up at Union Sq. and so I braved the pouring rain with an umbrella and waterproof shoes and left the house. I actually really enjoyed the rain and the amazing warmth of the evening, just not so much the wetness of my pants after many blocks of walking. We had dinner with Talie as well at the Vietnamese place to which I went with Galia and her friends a few weeks ago on University and 13th. From there it was Grey Dog's and then a wander through the East Village with the beer bars I'd had in mind vetoed due to a lack of seating and then us ending up at Beauty Bar for a drink. I stayed true to my resolve while Shlomit and Talie each had something. Talie really liked the place while Shlomit and I were very skeptical (I mean, we'd been there before, but I'm pretty convinced now that the place sucks - both the crowd and the music). After the drink it was home and to bed.

Sunday morning Shlomit left really early but Talie stayed in New York for another few days. She went off to a museum or maybe Chelsea while I went into the office cuz I felt sort of guilty about skipping Friday to buy the amp and stuff. I can't remember much of the day other than the working. Alex was in the office too so we had some productive coding going on. That evening I think was the one when I came home to Can having consumed a whole bottle of port and then he and Talie keeping me up for a while before he got her to go to Bagelsmith with him at like 1 in the morning.

Monday I again went to the office and feverishly worked. Alex and I are trying to connect our two programming components in what Dennis calls the Union Pacific. We ended up not getting that done before our meeting with Dennis that evening, but we'd worked hard to get there so it was cool. When I got home I found an empty house around 8:30 so I turned on my amp only to have Talie come back after not to much longer. After a little subtle coaxing I decided to go out with her, after having bragged to a very tipsy Galia not much before about how I'd not drunk any alcohol for 3 whole days. She and I met Can in the elevator and he decided to join. The three of us first went to Foodswings, the vegan fast food place, where they had dinner and I had a rootbeer float with vegan ice cream. We then went to Spuyten Duyvil. We got the usual window seats and then Talie asked me how one picks people up in a bar. I thought about it and said all you need is some "in" to start talking to them, so an obvious tactic is to go with a group and stand next to another group of people with attractive members of the obvious sex. I then resolved to demonstrate how one talks to said members and chatted it up with the bartender a few times. It was rather amusing. Can left after the second drink but Talie and I stayed for a third, which as I had warned her previously in the evening caused me to start going off about how amazingly awesome my girlfriend is. I advertised some Zvoov on the chalkboard in the bathroom and we rolled home.

Tuesday was another office day. I know I didn't make it home until something like 9, at which point I played like 2 hours of guitar. Lately I've decided to try and play for at least 1 hour every single day if not more. Consistency is very important to my improvement on the instrument I've noticed.

Wednesday I talked to Galia for quite a while in the morning and then went to the research lunch with Dennis's group. From there I went back to the office and drew up some slides presenting mistakes that were made a lot on the homework I'd corrected for the Advanced Database Systems class I'm TAing. Next office hours, next class and said presentation (which Dennis says he liked), then more office hours, then home for more guitar playing.

Thursday morning I decided to head into the music practice space for my practicing, thinking that I could just work late and that the space closes at 6 so practicing there isn't an option. Well, this turned into me playing guitar for like 3 hours and drums for like 1.5 hours. The new setup is so amazing, I just can't wait til we have the real practice space and thus I can practice in the evenings. While I was drumming, mostly listening along on my iPhone to Nirvana and Tool and trying to replicate what was going on, a dude who works at the storage place and was cleaning the floors walked by and wanted to watch. I got sort of uncomfortable cuz, well, I'm not a drummer (even though he seemed to think it sounded good, it most definitely did not) so I switched back to guitar and showed him each of the pedals and so forth. He was very interested in the mechanics of how each part worked and I like explaining things so it was fun. By the time I got to the office it was almost 5, and then I just talked to Galia for an hour before getting to work. Sleepiness got the best of me early and I got into bed by 11 to read some of this history book on Nabokov that Lewis bought me and I was dozing off by 12, but then I had trouble actually falling asleep and woke up today at past 10.

I've been sleeping really late for the last week or so and I'm not sure why. I'm sort of considering quitting caffeine, maybe due to reading on his blog that Josiah had done the same recently with alcohol and cigarettes. I've had this weird feeling of anxiety deep in my stomach ever since I left Switzerland and I can't really tell why, but I imagine being hopped up on caffeine can't help. Today I again started the day with a full litre of coffee however and then talked to Galia on video skype (which is really an amazing resource I must say) for something like 2 hours before she had to roll to Shabat dinner. I then biked into the office, running into Dennis in the hallway and then also stopping by the NYU library to pick up a couple books on current philosophical thought on the idea that logical contradictions might not necessarily be fatal to arguments - i.e. that there are multiple classes of contradictions, some of which might be ok. It's a topic in which Galia and I are both interested so I'll bring them along to Israel. Speaking of which, I'll be headed there in less than a week, staying for 12 days this time, and I'm rather excited about that.

This weekend I've got a couple shows in mind: Wooden Shjips Saturday in some new space in Greenpoint near where I lived my first year here; and Bellini Sunday night at Bowery Ballroom. I also learned that this guy Todd who played a few times at parties in my basement in Madison is in this post rock band Cougar, one of whose albums I've had for a while now, and he'll be playing a show at Mercury Lounge after I get back in late November. I also just installed the new Kubuntu which was so far painless. I'm pretty happy to have last.fm scrobbling working again on Amarok.

I came across this quote of Vonnegut which I quite liked while reading Mother Night (which was great, as all Vonnegut is): "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile."

Ok, I'm gonna try and work a little now.

by Eric M Hielscher at October 30, 2009 11:37 PM

Ken Perlin

Wild things, part 6

One thing that animators can do very quickly and accurately is draw lines on paper. And there are a lot of line drawings involved in making an animation, so you don’t want to make any extra work for the animator. We wanted to give the animators an easy way to convey to the computer, through their drawings, what a fully shaded and rounded-looking character would look like. The following image of the back of Max’s head will give you an idea of what we came up with.

The artist would draw something like the image on the left - indicating the shape of the characters, as well as the outline of regions where the character should be bright or dark. Once we scanned in this image, we could start to do our magic on it. Christine Chang implemented a paint program that allowed an operator to fill each of these regions with a different color or shade, as shown in the image on the right.

But how do you go from that image to something that looks fully smooth and rounded? My basic approach was to use my fast blurring technique to blur out the regions inside the character. First, in software we clean up the painted image by removing the outlines and setting everything outside the shape to black:

Then we apply those fast blurs I talked about yesterday. In the two images that follow, we smear first horizontally, and then vertically:

But like I said yesterday, one blur isn’t good enough - the result doesn’t look quite as smooth as we would like. So we just smear again, first horizontally and then vertically:

Now it’s starting to look good. We had to smear four times to get that result (twice horizontally and twice vertically) but that’s ok, since the technique is fast.

But this result is clearly not yet what we want - the shape itself is blurry, not just the internal details. So next we use the silhouette of the original unblurred shape to trim the result - just like using a cookie cutter:

It’s almost there now, but not quite. Max’s head is too dark around the perimeter. But why? Because when we blurred everything, the black background color bled into the shape, creating an unwanted vignetting effect. We need to need to get rid of that vignette.

Fortunately, we know exactly how much black has bled into the shape at every pixel - exactly the same amount by which the silhouette becomes darker at that pixel when we blur the silhouette. And that gives a solution to this problem: At every pixel inside the shape, we need to divide by the brightness of the blurred silhouette. Most places this won’t change anything - the blurred silhouette is white almost everywhere. But near the perimeter, the result will get brighter by just the right amount:

Aha! Now it’s starting to look like a rounded 3D version of Max’s head. All that remains is to add the character to the background. In the real test, that background was the 3D computer graphic room, but here I’m just going to drop him into a white background. Also, of course, in the actual test Glen Keane draw the entire body of Max, not just the back of his head. :-)

So there you have it - we are almost done with the series. Mostly all that remains is to talk about shadows and a few little details about color, which I’ll discuss tomorrow to wrap up.

In my own personal experience doing this, the part of the above recipe that was a true revelation for me was in the step where I realized I just needed to divide by the blurry silhouette to get rid of the vignetting around the edges. That was the first time I realized that I could do any arithmetic I wanted on entire images, treating them just like numbers that can add, subtract, multiply and divide. There was a sense of freedom in realizing this, and it led me to start thinking more out of the box about images and the infinite possibilities of computer graphics.

by admin at October 30, 2009 04:53 AM

October 29, 2009

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October 29, 2009 08:30 AM