Sunday, August 02, 2015

Crowdsourcing Air Quality

Last year as I was contemplating a Silicon Valley job, I was brainstorming possible data science projects. I thought it would be cool to try to estimate air pollution levels from existing data sets. (Growing up in the Central Valley, I think conventional air pollution is a huge looming environmental health problem that doesn't get enough attention.) I figured you might be able to extract at least some air quality information from geo-tagged and time-stamped online photos of the sky. I ended up getting a different job, but found some pretty sweet ongoing projects.

Naturally, a quick search showed that someone had already thought of this idea. SkySnapper is a fairly recent project that enables people to upload images of the sky with the goal of estimating AQ, although they don't seem to have done much with the concept so far. More fully developed is this project from a research team at USC. They have already developed an Android app and done the hard work of building a mathematical model in order to correctly extract air visibility information from a photograph (pdf). Although their concept seems sound, it doesn't appear that many people have submitted data through their app.

Smartphone photos aside, the broader world of air pollution monitoring is also being transformed by big data and citizen science concepts. A group of Berkeley undergrads are developing personal PM2.5 monitors -- a very cool idea, but apparently still in development. Similarly, Smart Citizen helps people set up environmental monitoring networks in their cities using Arduino-controlled hardware. And the startup Aclima has been getting some good press lately collaborating with Google to study indoor air pollution and put monitors on the Google Street View cars. Cool stuff, but of course the big challenge will be scaling up these concepts and understanding the data well enough to make meaningful contributions to science or policy. Something for when I get a chunk of free time...

Update: also this.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice was easily one of my favorite books from recent years. It was great to see him working again in the detective genre and putting forth a funny, (relatively) accessible story without sacrificing the dense, tangled socio-cultural commentary that makes him great. The thought of a P.T. Anderson film adaptation of the allegedly unfilmable Pynchon was one of those little nerd-convergences the filled my heart with both joy and the vague fear that PTA would somehow screw it up.

I finally got around to seeing the film version last night (about six months behind the pop culture cutting edge as per usual) and it most definitely was not screwed up. The film adaptation is an impressive merging of two artistic visions, and if nothing else, a triumph of condensation. The film inevitably has to scrap a bunch of characters and subplots, but in 2.5 hours it hits most of high points and, most importantly, nails the tone.

Joaquin Phoenix was terrific and basically carried the movie. Brolin and Reese were both pretty funny, and and unlike a lot of people I thought Owen Wilson actually wasn't that bad. I mean he's got the stoned surf dude thing down pat. The plot streamline means that a lot of great minor characters only get a few scenes, like Michael K. Williams and Benicio del Toro (also, man, Martin Donovan got old.)

On the big picture, I mostly agree with this Stephen Maher review in Jacobin, which locates the film as part 3 of PTA's ongoing interrogation of 20th century America, following There Will Be Blood and The Master. The theme here is the swift ending of Sixties idealism following Manson and Altamont, and the co-optation of the counter culture by neoliberalism. Maher also highlights why the Big Lebowski comparisons miss something important:
"As opposed to an Odyssey-style film of the kind the Coen brothers endlessly remake, in which the main character has to go on some quest to transform himself in order to accommodate the “home” he returns to at the end of the journey, this film focuses on how the world is changing, imposing on everyone the need to become something new — though they know not what. The bottom line is that there is no home, and Doc cannot simply return to his life as a stronger and wiser man (as in The Big Lebowski, among countless others)."
For me the film seemed harsher than the book in its portrayal of this reaction. Perhaps some of the parts that got left out were some of Pynchon's subtle invocations of community, the way people still supported each other despite the circling paranoia. This is clearest in the how the film and the book treat the final scene:
At the end of the film, Doc and Shasta literally appear to drive into an abyss: they are apparently in a car, but outside the window all we see is homogenous darkness — no scenery, other cars, etc. — while Shasta mentions how it feels like “the whole world is underwater and we are the only ones left.” Even Sortilege’s narration has disappeared.
It's a cool scene, but worth noting that Pynchon's take on it is vastly different. In the book Doc is driving alone (it's less clear if he gets back with Shasta), but falls in with a caravan of other drivers banding together for safety as they make their way home through the fog. "It was one of the few things he'd ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free." Far from the romantic couple being the only ones left, it's an almost subliminal vision of community, battered by the neoliberal riptide, but still existing somehow. It's a lovely scene, reminiscent of a few passages of Gravity's Rainbow, and maybe even Steinbeck's Cannery Row (another odd collection of beach bums led by another 'Doc').

Anyway, here's my goodreads review of the book (written pre-movie):
Loved it. Inherent Vice is Thomas Pynchon at his most "groovy" and accessible. He has dialed back the abstract philosophizing and limited his obscure cultural references to pop songs and films, and the result is a hilariously readable shaggy-dog LA crime story. In some circles silly-Pynchon is inherently less important or prestigious than serious-Pynchon, but I don't buy it. There is actually a lot of emotional and political weight behind this story, which only rises to the surface in the book's final chapters.

A companion piece to Pynchon's other "accessible" California novel The Crying of Lot 49, this one is also a warped take on the traditional mystery novel. Lot 49 was set at the beginning of the 1960s and directly inverted the form of the genre -- starting out in the clear certainty of mid-century American normality and adding sex, drugs, coincidences, conspiracies and paranoia with each chapter until by the end the protagonist is cut loose from everything she can trust. By contrast, Inherent Vice is about the closing of the 60s and the last gasps of that strand of idealism. The story involves hippie pothead PI Doc Sportello, investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend's billionaire lover. In the grand tradition of Chinatown, he digs up an ugly conspiracy that involves drug smuggling and the LAPD, prison gangs and right-wing politicians.

The other touchstone here is naturally The Big Lebowski. You can draw a lot of parallels between Sportello and The Dude. There are a lot of drug and stoner jokes here, most of them pretty funny. Many of the other Pynchon hallmarks are found too, like the bizarre names and goofy song lyrics, but unlike a lot of his other novels, the dialogue and character building are put in the foreground. (At times he even reads a bit like Elmore Leonard.) This time around he doesn't subvert the detective noir genre so much as revel in it, adding characters, plot twists and double crosses right and left.

Ultimately it becomes clear what he's getting at and it stands as his clearest statement of solidarity with the freaks and weirdos who build "temporary communes" to stand against the machinery of death and to "help each other home through the fog." As one minor character puts it, "what I am is, is like a small-diameter pearl of the Orient rolling around on the floor of late capitalism-- lowlifes of all income levels may step on me now and then but if they do it'll be them who slip and fall and on a good day break their ass, while the ol' pearl herself just goes a-rollin' on.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


I've been too busy packing for the apocalypse, hence no time to blog. Thankfully Janelle Monáe continues to have you covered on that front.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

In The Woods

I just finished reading Tana French's mystery novel, In The Woods. It was pretty cool, and you can read my review of it on goodreads. Lots of spoilers, so if you're thinking of reading it, don't click!

Friday, February 14, 2014

On the desert plains all night

Dark but pretty. "Song for Zula," by Phosphorescent.
If you like this you should definitely hear Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball album. Just amazing. It has the same dreamy, shimmery, high desert vibe you get from The Joshua Tree (both albums were, not coincidentally, produced by Daniel Lanois).

Monday, February 10, 2014


When I was a kid we had a set of World Book encyclopedias, of the sort I'm not even sure you can buy anymore. I used to sit down and just read random volumes, usually starting with an article I had to look up and getting intrigued by the next one in alphabetical order. The same thing happens nowadays with wikipedia, but it's a little more thematic. With an encyclopedia the path was different and often I would find myself fascinated by a topic I would never have thought to look at. Rembrandt -> rhubarb -> RNA -> rock 'n' roll -> Russian. As a result I always had a bunch of facts and names and pictures floating around in my head, but I couldn't really place where I had got them from. In fact, for a long time I didn't know the name of my "favorite" work of art. I had stumbled on it one day, somewhere in one of those 26 volumes, and loved it instantly. I remembered a girl playing alone in the middle of a town square bathed by a harsh afternoon light, but not the name.

Art nerds may have already recognized the piece from my description: Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, painted by Giorgio de Chirico in 1914. (No doubt it had been the "D" volume where I encountered it.) Not sure why that particular image stuck with me. I'm sure I loved the cinematic drama of the scene and the palpable sense of menace. I had no idea who painted it or what it was called, but I carried the shard of memory with me for years. Of course, once the internet rolled around it took just a few quick searches to figure out who the painter was.

I've noticed that there is sometimes a disconnect between the critical opinions of my brain's higher and lower reasoning components. My conscious brain might decide that such and such book, movie, music, art is a favorite. And maybe it has good reasons for thinking that, but probably at least part of it is because it was recommended by a friend, or a critic said it was good, or I admire the author's life story, or I want to signal sophistication to my peer group, etc. And sometimes my lizard brain says, "no. what you really actually like is actually this other thing instead. see I'll show you."

This isn't even so much a "I like action movies but I pretend I'm really into Tarkovsky" sort of thing (although I do like action movies). It's more that certain works of art that I hadn't given much thought to just linger in the mind, coming unbidden into the forefront thanks to some subterranean resonance. I've been trying to pay more attention to that lizard brain, to actively remember art that lingers, as opposed to what is consumed, appreciated and forgotten. I'm trying to get back the feeling of that anonymous painting.

An example. If you've never seen Jim Sheridan's "In America" it's pretty good and well worth watching. It has strong performances from Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou (transcending a cliched "magical negro" role) and, especially, the two little girls. It's noways the best film I've ever seen (fore-brain speaking), but it has some nice moments. And there is one scene in particular that has lingered. The movie concerns an Irish family who has immigrated to NYC and one night they head to the fair and the father decides to play one of those carnival games where you throw a baseball through a hole and win a prize. The family is dirt poor and just scraping by, but he lets himself get drawn into a "double-or-nothing" dare after missing the first few throws, and pretty soon the price has doubled and re-doubled until the next missed throw will cost them next month's rent.

It's contrived, but damn if it doesn't pack a punch. For me it was a tremendous dramatization of the way we live -- all of us, not just poor immigrants -- perched on the precipice. We are all one moment of recklessness, or bad luck, or bad driving, or a slip of the tongue away from disaster. When I go to the top of a tall building to admire the view there is always one Evil Neuron in my head that brings up perverse thoughts of jumping. Watching this scene is like a five-minute conversation with the Evil Neuron. It makes me want to take a deep breath and hug my family members. (Unfortunately the scene in question isn't available on YouTube, but here's the trailer for the film.)

Here are some more lingerers. The two books that I have spent more time thinking about over the past few years are Little, Big by John Crowley and The City and the City by China Miéville. At the time I read them I thought "interesting but flawed" and now I can't get them out of my head. The same thing goes for Michael Winterbottom's film Code 46 (also starring, ta da, Samantha Morton), John Greyson's Lillies, and more. Oddly unforgettable, all of them.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Libre Soy

Like most other kids in the known universe, my daughter Quinn has proven defenseless against the charms of Frozen, and in particular the big show-stopper sung by Idina Menzel -- "Let It Go."
I've been trying to blog new music each week, and if I'm honest, this is the new music that has been ringing through our house this past month -- Quinn luuuvvvvs this song (and the Snowman one). We listen to the spanish version ("Libre Soy"), we listen to the various adorable versions sung by little kids, I catch her singing it to herself while she's playing. She's even started writing her own stories starring Elsa and Anna (her first fan fiction?).

All of which fills me with great parental joy (the princess thing notwithstanding). It's always exciting when your kids are genuinely excited about something (whatever it is). And up until this point Quinn's list of projects and interests and obsessions hasn't really included much music. Which is fine of course, but you can bet we'll be encouraging this going forward.